Adlerian Theory: Understanding The Individual

By Joanna Smykowski|Updated June 29, 2022

Adlerian Theory Is Based On Psychologist Adler. Read About His Concepts.

Adlerian theory refers to a psychological practice built on the belief that, as unique individuals, people should be validated, connected, and made to feel significant. Adlerian therapy focuses on the entire individual, not just the parts that need improvement, and regards the personality as strongly influenced by the role one played within their family of origin, which is reflected in part by birth order.

This theory is also based on the importance of having a sense of community. According to Adler, individuals who feel that they belong will act cooperatively and form healthy, loving bonds with others. But those who feel like outcasts will act out to express that feeling of inadequacy. Thus, an essential goal is to help those who feel like outsiders create community. This article will discuss how this theory was formed and how it is implemented in psychology today.

Who Was Alfred Adler?

Alfred Adler was a living legend and psychologist in the early 20th century who originally studied medicine but eventually left his mark in the field of psychology. He was a one-time colleague of Sigmund Freud but broke away due to his clinical beliefs which would develop into 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 can be attributed to the whole of an individual, not just certain parts. Other psychologists at the time only focused on the internal factors and therefore did not view individuals as a whole. Adler believed that individuals were indivisible and should be treated as such, which is why his therapeutic approach is called individual psychology. Psychology today is still heavily influenced by Alfred Adler and his insight.

Alfred Adler’s work has had a profound impact on the psychology world. Many institutes and schools have formed based on his 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 a positive impact on psychology today.  

Over the century, many psychologists have become major proponents of Adler's ideas and have revolutionized how the psychology field and therapists perceive their patients. One of those was Jon Carlson, a distinguished professor who taught at Governors State University in University Park, Illinois, and Adler University.  He was a valued member of the American Counseling Association and practiced Adlerian psychology at the Wellness Clinic In Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. He also received a Lifetime Contribution award from the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology. For further reading on Adlerian principles and therapy, you can check out the books he wrote on the subject.

Adlerian Theory—A Sense of Belonging

As discussed above, one of Adler’s main beliefs was that people need to feel that they belong. People are their best selves when they feel connected to and loved by those around them. This is especially important in families, which are the first communities most people belong to. When a family member feels that they are not appreciated, they will act in unhealthy ways. This may include withdrawing, competing, or giving up altogether. Feeling discouraged will increase this behavior and may cause the person to become isolated from their family.

Many times, parents will 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 act out when they feel unloved, devalued, or unsupported. Therefore, by embracing the child fully while using appropriate discipline, the parent is more likely to see an improvement.

Understanding Unique Beliefs

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 are key to understanding our behavior. The ways we look for a sense of belonging from those around us are not static. They can be changed with time, dedication, and therapy. But according to Adler, it is first necessary to understand where our beliefs come from, based on our childhood experiences.

As discussed above, children’s behavior reflects their need for validation and acceptance. When a child isn't given attention for positive behavior, they are likely to seek attention for negative behavior. They might break something or fight with their sibling to gain the parental attention they crave, even if it's negative. Their belief system then becomes internalized, and the child carries that type of behavior into adulthood.

Accepting the Individual

The Adlerian approach views each person as a whole individual as opposed to just a collection of behaviors, beliefs, and influences. Adler stressed that we must study the entire individual, as 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. But when we highlight good qualities and show the person they are valued, negative behaviors and beliefs can be slowly replaced.

Just as adults improve their behavior when they are made to feel valued and appreciated, so do children. When we celebrate our children’s accomplishments and highlight their talents, they have less need to gain attention through poor behavior.

Adlerian Theory in Therapy

In therapy, the Adlerian approach benefits 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 happens in four steps known as the four stages of Adlerian therapy.

At the beginning of therapy, the therapist engages the client in developing a close relationship. They establish goals and boundaries before diving into the real work: building a foundation of trust.

Next, the therapist encourages the client to talk about their experiences, emotions, behaviors, family, upbringing, and drives. This information helps establish how the individual’s current behaviors came to be. In this psychoeducational approach, this information is necessary for treatment as the therapist needs to understand the client as a whole. 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 stupid? This assessment helps the therapist understand the current behaviors and beliefs of the client.

The third step is for the therapist to offer their insight into how past experiences may have shaped the client’s current beliefs and behaviors. Gaining insight can help the client 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 is reoriented. Together, the therapist and client come up with a new interpretation of the clients’ past and 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 is easier for the client to move toward growth and fulfillment.

Adlerian Theory Is Based On Psychologist Adler. Read About His Concepts.

The ultimate goal of Adlerian therapy is to show the client that they 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. Once clients are shown that old beliefs don't have to determine their current lives, they can more confidently move forward.

How Can Adlerian Therapy Help?

Adlerian therapy can help individuals gain confidence and make better decisions. It can aid clients in being 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. Once that fear is addressed and overcome, it is possible to live one’s best life and form healthier relationships with others.

Ultimately, the 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 lead to healthier decisions and relationships. 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 Adlerian therapy 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 insist on establishing a childhood timeline. This might not work for some individuals.

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

Where to Get Help. To take advantage of the help Adlerian therapists can offer, you can contact a licensed therapist who utilizes Adlerian theory. For child development, there are many childcare facilities available to the public that follow Adlerian theory.

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:

Good Therapy.

Alfred Adler Graduate School.

Who Can Adlerian Therapy Help?

Research shows that Adlerian therapy can successfully treat any mental disorder. It can be used on its own or in combination with other forms of therapy, including play therapy and art therapy. Adlerian therapy with a licensed therapist can help children, adolescents, or adults, and  individuals, couples, families, and other groups.

The Benefits of Online Therapy

As discussed above, Adlerian therapy with a licensed therapist can help individuals of all ages with mental disorders. But symptoms of disorders such as depression and anxiety can make it difficult to attend in-person sessions. This is where online therapy comes in. You can access BetterHelp’s platform from the comfort and privacy of your own home. In addition, online therapy offers lower pricing than in-person therapy because online therapists don’t have to pay for costs like renting an office. BetterHelp’s licensed therapists have helped people with various mental disorders. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

“Toni is awesome! She responds daily and she reads through every single word that I type. I know this because she provides me feedback on absolutely everything. That's something that I truly appreciate. I know she cares and loves what she does. It shows. It's a blessing to have a counselor who pays attention and is focused on what I have to say and what I'm feeling. I had been close to unsubscribing in the past but stayed because of Toni and her desire to help me through my life circumstances.”

“Rene was assigned as my counselor and I couldn't be happier with his support. I've been working with him for about 2 months now and he's helped me get through some really dark times. When I first signed up for BetterHelp, I was experiencing depression unlike any episode I've had before. Rene gave me the tools and advice I needed to get through those days and that I can use anytime I feel those thoughts creeping back. I look forward to our sessions and can't thank him enough for the support and motivation he's given me. I highly recommend working with Rene!”

Some commonly asked questions around this topic are:

What are the key concepts of Adlerian therapy?
What is the main goal of Adlerian therapy?
What is the basic principle of Adlerian theory?
What are the 4 stages of Adlerian therapy?
What are Adler's four stages of therapy?
What are the benefits of Adlerian therapy?
What is the question in Adlerian therapy?
Is adlerian therapy good for anxiety?
What is Adler's theory of individual psychology?
Is adlerian therapy still used today?

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.