Adlerian Theory: Understanding The Individual

By Joanna Smykowski

Updated December 17, 2018


Named after its creator, Adlerian theory refers to the practice and belief that people as individuals should be validated, connected, and made to feel significant. The theory applied in therapy focuses on the entire individual, not just the bits and pieces that need improvement, and embraces the personality as the development of children and environmental influences. This is important in discovering ways to help the person move forward if they are seeking to improve their lives.

The theory was created in the early 1900's by Alfred Adler who founded this new way to approach psychology after parting ways with Sigmund Freud. Adler was originally an ophthalmologist before he entered psychiatry and shortly after established his theory. He believed that "a misbehaving child is a discouraged child," and also believed that discouraged individuals would act out when they feel unloved or unsupported.

Much of the theory is based on having a sense of community. Individuals who feel that they belong will act cooperatively and healthy, forming loving bonds with other individuals. But those who feel like outcasts, for example, will act out in any number of ways to express that feeling of inadequacy. The goal then would be to create a community with that individual.

Alderian Theory - A Sense Of Belonging

One of the greatest things Adler believed was giving people a sense of belonging. People are their best selves when they feel connected and loved by those around them. This is especially important in family units that thrive on help from each in the family. When someone in the family feels like they are not appreciated, whether it be a child or adult, they will act in ways that are not healthy. This can include withdrawing, competing, or giving up altogether. Feeling discouraged will only further this behavior and will cause the person to become isolated from their family.

Many times, parents will punish bad behavior. This discipline can effectively eliminate the poor behavior, but without an understanding of where the behavior stems from can prevent the behavior from being eliminated. Misunderstood children who act out may just feel left out. One theory Adler believed was that birth order influenced these feelings. Early encounters with devaluation can also influence poor behavior. By embracing the child fully in addition to discipline, the parent can see an improvement.


Understanding Unique Beliefs

When we take the time to analyze where our personal beliefs come from and how they influence repetitive behavior, we can then start taking steps to growth and healing. Also, looking at the ways, we seek validation and acceptance are key to understanding our behavior. These things are not static. They can be changed with time, therapy, and dedication. But it's first important to understand where they come from based on our childhood backgrounds.

Children who feel unloved will seek validation and acceptance through their behavior. When a child isn't given attention for positive behavior, they will seek attention for bad behavior. They might break something or cause a fuss with their sibling to gain that parental attention they crave, even if it's negative. This becomes internalized, and the child then carries that behavior into adulthood.

Accepting The Individual

The Adlerian theory also accepts the person as a whole individual instead of just as a collection of behaviors, beliefs, and influences. In this practice, it is stressed to study the entire individual as this is what will give us clues as to where growth can begin. If we were to focus on the bad behaviors, for example merely, then the person might feel that their other qualities don't have any value. But by highlighting the good qualities and showing the person that they are valued, their negative behaviors and beliefs can slowly be replaced.

People improve when they are made to feel valued. By placing value on the individual and accepting them as a whole, they can begin to make positive changes in their lifestyle. The same applies to children. Kids improve when they're made to feel valued and appreciated. By celebrating their accomplishments and highlighting their talents, they will shy away from attempting to gain attention through poor behavior.

Adlerian Theory As Therapy

As therapy, this theory benefits the individual by helping them understand where their behaviors stem from, how they can change their view of themselves, and how they can change their view of their childhood. This happens in four steps with a licensed therapist.

At the beginning of therapy, the therapist engages their client in developing a close relationship. They establish their goals and boundaries before diving into the real work, essentially building a foundation of trust. This is pertinent in order to move forward. If this doesn't happen, then the entire therapy falls apart.

Afterwards, the therapist encourages their client to talk about their experiences, emotions, behaviors, family, upbringing, and drives. This helps establish a foundation of how the individual came about to acting the way that they do now. Was there a significant life event that made them feel shameful or guilty? Did this event push them into the shadows or become quiet so that their verbalized thoughts weren't made to feel silly? This helps the therapist understand the current behaviors and beliefs of the client.

The next step is helping the client develop new ways of thinking. They're encouraged to take on a new perspective on their situation as well as reshape how they view their past experiences so that they can move forward. Once this step is achieved, the client can create new goals for growth in their life.

Finally, the client is reoriented. They are shown that they can make changes to their lifestyle to reinforce their new perspective. This new positive perspective can give them the confidence to take steps in achieving their goals. Having shed the weight of shame, guilt, ugliness, or lack of self-worth, their lives will improve significantly as a result.


The goal of therapy is to show the client that they have control over their thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. Sticking to beliefs that were created early can be changed with time, effort, and help from their therapist. Those beliefs can be transformed into a new belief that they do have worth and that their opinions matter. Once they're shown that old beliefs don't have to have a bearing on their current life, they can confidently move forward.

How Can Adlerian Theory Help?

Adlerian therapy can help individuals gain confidence in themselves to help them make confident decisions. It can aid them in being independent without the fear that they might fail. Though failure is a part of life, constantly feeling like a failure due to an internal belief can interfere with their daily living. Once that fear is removed, that person can live their best life and form cohesive relationships with others.

Ultimately, the goal of this therapy is to replace long-held negative beliefs, so the person becomes more self-reliant, confident, and socially empowered. This leads to healthier decisions as well as healthier relationships. That confidence will continue to shine through their lives as they continue to make better decisions for themselves. Though this type of therapy takes time, replacing those beliefs can open up a host of opportunities for that person that they didn't think possible.

How It Doesn't Help. This type of therapy is not for people who expect quick results. It also doesn't cater to those who only want to be in therapy for a brief amount of time. Adlerian therapy takes effort, dedication, and commitment. While it can help the individual transform into a healthy and happy adult, it doesn't happen overnight. (And in truth, most therapy will take the same effort.)

Another limitation is that the therapy involves a deep dive into early life events. This might be intimidating for those who do not wish to confront childhood memories that might be painful, upsetting, or disturbing. Since it is important to establish the reasons for current behavior and thoughts, Adlerian psychotherapists insist on establishing a childhood timeline. This might not work for some individuals.

Individuals who are less insightful or who do not wish to challenge current beliefs will also find that this type of therapy is unsatisfying. Most types of therapy will likely cover a section of their belief systems, so it's important, to be honest. Without that dedication, this therapy (and potentially other types of therapy) may not be effective.


Where To Get Help. To take advantage of the beneficial therapy Adlerian psychologists can offer, it's important to call a specialist as soon as possible. For child development, there are many childcare facilities available to the public that follow Adlerian theory. This can be a positive upbringing for your child to encourage them to be their best selves preemptively.

For help that starts at the click of a button, follow this link:

Read more about Alfred Adler and his theory in the following articles:

Psychology Today.

Good Therapy.

Alfred Adler Graduate School.

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