Adlerian Theory: Understanding The Individual

Updated January 26, 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 concept of connection has prompted research from some of the world’s top psychologists and researchers, including Alfred Adler — resulting in Adlerian theory. 

Below, we’re discussing what Adlerian theory is, who Alfred Adler was and his contributions to connection-related theories, as well as how Adlerian theory has impacted therapeutic experiences since its conception. 

Who Was Alfred Adler?

Alfred Adler was a known psychologist in the early 20th century who originally studied medicine — eventually leaving his mark in the field of psychology. He was a colleague of Sigmund Freud over a span of several years, but ended up breaking away 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. Much of human behavior, under Alfred Adler’s perspective, 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 one’s mental health and overall constitution, with many not accepting the belief of the “whole” individual. 

Adler believed that individuals were indivisible and should be treated as such, which is why his therapeutic approach is generally regarded as individual psychology. Psychology today, as a whole, 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 of Adlerian Psychology and Adler University were founded based on Adlerian principles, and continue to have what many perceive to be a positive impact on psychology today.  

Over the course of a century, many psychologists have become major proponents of Adler's ideas and have revolutionized how the psychology field and 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. 

For example: When a family feels that they are not appreciated, they may act in unhealthy ways. This may include withdrawing, competing or giving up on connecting altogether. Feeling discouraged can increase this behavior and may cause 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, Adler hypothesized that it would be only then that the parent would be likely to see an improvement.

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 can be especially helpful to understanding our behavior. However, we do want to note: The ways we look for a sense of belonging from those around us are not necessarily static. They can be changed 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— hypothesizing that this is what will give 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 one’s beliefs or actions. However, when we highlight good qualities and show the person they are valued, negative behaviors and beliefs can be slowly replaced over time due to the “tie” that connection provides.

These Adlerian concepts can 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 our children’s accomplishments and highlight their talents, they may have less need to gain attention through poor behavior.

Adlerian Theory In Therapy

In therapy, the Adlerian approach can 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.

At the beginning of Adlerian therapy, the therapist may choose to engage the client and develop a close relationship. They may choose to establish goals and boundaries before diving into the next step for many: building a foundation of trust and respect.

Next, the therapist might encourage the client to talk about their experiences, emotions, behaviors, family, upbringing and driving factors. This information can help 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. Questions that may be asked include: “Was there a significant life event that made them feel ashamed or guilty?” “Did this event push them into the shadows or cause them to become quiet to avoid feeling inadequate?” This assessment and ongoing line of questioning can help the therapist understand the current behaviors and beliefs of the client.

The third step may be for the therapist to offer their insight into how past experiences might have shaped the client’s current beliefs and behaviors. Gaining insight can help the client to change their behavior and perspective on their life. However, we do want to note that 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 come up with a new interpretation of the clients’ past, as well as strategies that they can use to change their life in positive ways. 

This new, positive perspective can give clients the confidence they need to work toward their goals. Having shed the weight of shame, guilt, or lack of self-worth, it can be easier for the client 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 their opinions matter — offering them the opportunity to take ownership in 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 can help individuals gain confidence and make better decisions. It can aid clients in feeling independent without the fear of failure. Though 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 provide value. Once that fear is addressed and overcome, it can be possible to live one’s best life and form healthier relationships with others.

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

Considerations For Adlerian Therapy Methods

This type of therapy may not be the right choice for people who expect exceptionally fast results. It also 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. 

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 do not wish to confront childhood memories that are painful, upsetting, or disturbing. Since it is important to establish the reasons for current behavior 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 Impact Those Interested In Adlerian Therapy? 

As discussed above, Adlerian therapy (or online therapy, such as CBT) with a licensed therapist can help individuals of all ages with a range of mental disorders. However, symptoms of disorders such as depression and anxiety can make it difficult to attend in-person sessions. This is where online therapy can be helpful to some. 

Online therapy may offer lower pricing than in-person therapy, as online therapists may incur lesser costs. It may also be a more accessible option for some who have problems leaving the home.

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 comparably effective for those experiencing depression, anxiety disorder and a range of other concerns. Online therapy has empowered many to seek the support they need to have a higher quality of life. 


Adlerian concepts have had a major impact across individuals and therapy protocols. Focusing on the whole human and interpersonal connection have helped many people make valuable breakthroughs and progress creating the life they love. Online therapy can be a helpful tool to expose patients to Adlerian concepts and drive transformational change. 

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