Understanding The Basic Principles Of Classical Adlerian Psychology

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated June 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Alfred Adler was an Austrian medical doctor and psychotherapist who lived and worked in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Adler’s work—now referred to as Adlerian psychology, or individual psychology—was impactful in his time, and many of the tenets of modern psychology are based on it as well. Adlerian psychology refers to a specific type of psychotherapy, but some of its principles are also evident in other types as well. Below we'll examine Alfred Adler's story, the main principles and theories he developed, and how his work continues to influence psychology today.

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A brief overview of Alfred Adler’s career

Alfred Adler was born near Vienna, Austria in 1870. His own childhood illness—a case of rickets that made him unable to walk until age four—motivated him to become a physician as an adult. He graduated from the University of Vienna Medical School in 1895 and pursued a career first as an ophthalmologist, then as a general physician.

He later switched to the field of psychiatry and became part of a psychoanalysis discussion group formed by Sigmund Freud, who would later become known as the founder of modern psychoanalysis. Adler eventually parted ways with Freud when differences emerged in their views, although the two continued to regard each other as colleagues and remained on amicable terms.

In 1912, Adler founded the Society for Individual Psychology, using the term "individual" to refer to his view of the person as an indivisible whole who should be treated as such. According to Adler, all facets making up a person's personality need to be taken into account in a holistic approach to therapy. Adler also founded several child guidance clinics in Vienna, lectured at universities across Europe and in the US, and wrote over 300 books and articles in his lifetime. 

Seven basic principles of Adlerian psychology

The Adlerian approach to mental health can be explained simply as trying to create a sense of belonging within the individual. When the individual feels loved and has worthwhile connections to others, it theorizes, they will be able to become their best selves. Conversely, it posits that the tendency to act out or behave in socially unacceptable ways stems from feelings of inadequacy and being an outcast from society.

Adler developed several key principles that further explain and contextualize this approach, as outlined below.

1. Holism

Holism refers to Adler’s belief that psychological and psychiatric treatment should address each individual as a unique, indivisible whole, rather than simply according to the “part” that’s symptomatic. As the APA Dictionary of Psychology defines it, holism means that “an analysis or understanding of the parts does not provide an understanding of the whole.” In other words, how a person deals with life can only be fully understood by looking at all components of their personality and experience, since these combined are what make someone who they are.

2. Humans as social beings

Adler believed that seeing humans as social beings in addition to unique, separate individuals was crucial. This manifests as the individual simultaneously striving for a feeling of uniqueness within social groups while also needing to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance. He also identified that it’s within social groups that a person may be faced with many life challenges, such as those related to relationships with others, work, love, and sex, which is why a person’s behavior within these groups is so important to focus on.

He identified the family as the individual's first social setting, meaning that it plays an important role in how they view life and behave in other social settings later on. Adler viewed birth order and other elements of the family constellation as being formative forces in the development of the individual's worldview. In this way, Adler was an early proponent of examining family influences on the individual and vice versa. He believed that the individual needs to accept that their family and their past contributed to who they are, and that who they are has an effect on their family and others around them as well.

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3. Feeling connected to community

Adler recognized the importance of community to the individual and emphasized that building strong, authentic connections within one requires work. He believed that community connectedness means living in harmony with and contributing positively to others rather than simply conforming. This concept, which he referred to as “social interest,” goes hand in hand with mental health, according to his work—that a person's level of social interest will determine how well they’re able to handle major life challenges.

4. Teleology as a result of feeling inferior

Adler described humans as innately teleological, or goal-oriented, meaning that all of a person's behaviors and emotions serve the purpose of moving them closer to their goal—which arises from the individual's feelings of inferiority and the desire to become perfect. According to Adler, everyone is born with a sense of inferiority as a result of being small, helpless, and depending on others for basic needs. This feeling may be compounded by a disability, abuse, or being told you're not good enough. 

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As a result, the individual will strive to prove themselves to be significant or worthy by compensating for imperfections. Adler surmised that the reasoning behind a person's actions and attitudes becomes clear once the origin of their feeling of inferiority and the goals they have set to compensate for it are understood. That’s why he believed that it’s important for the therapist to discover these goals so that they can help the client set new ones.

5. Being oriented toward a final goal

Since Adlerian psychology sees the individual as inherently goal-oriented, that means they are inherently future-oriented as well—constantly striving toward their own “final goal.” This goal represents the individual's idea of success or of becoming complete by compensating for perceived inferiorities. A person's final goal is, therefore, akin to self-determination. While factors like culture and relationships may influence it, it’s ultimately a unique expression of the individual's creative ability that can be changed as their beliefs change.

This is often described as an optimistic, positive, and inspiring view of the individual. In therapy, it promotes the idea that a therapist can help an individual examine their final goal and the behaviors that are currently contributing to it. They can then guide them toward the willing choice of adjusting it as needed to make it more fulfilling, uplifting, and socially beneficial.

6. The impact of style of life

“Style of life” is a term Adler used to describe an individual’s personality and worldview. It includes the pattern of how they think about and behave within their social groups, their concept of themselves, and their strategies for dealing with life's challenges even as they try to improve upon their perceived inferior status. It may manifest in both conscious and unconscious ways and can be constructive or destructive to the social groups they’re a part of. 

Style of life is seen as both a method of survival and a key influence in a person's development per Adlerian psychology. It’s also linked to mental health in that a healthy individual should be adaptable and capable of changing their approach to situations, whereas someone who experiences high rigidity may experience more mental health difficulties. Adler noted, however, that while the style of life may be heavily influenced by childhood experiences that the individual can’t control, they are capable of initiating style of life changes and growth.

7. Logic

One final, key principle of Adlerian psychology is that of logic as opposed to common sense. Logic refers to the ways in which an individual rationalizes their lifestyle. It can be viewed as their interpretation of reality and their place in it, which influences them to focus on themselves and on attaining personal security and superiority. Common sense, on the other hand, is an attribute of the community, which is consensual and serves the greater good. One aim of individual therapy, then, is to help the individual adopt a more common-sense and less self-centered approach to how they relate to others.

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How Adler's theories influenced modern psychology

Adler is generally regarded, along with Freud and Jung, as one of the key thinkers and contributors to the development of the field of psychology. However, it is often pointed out that many of Adler's ideas on psychology are not directly attributed to him, even though they are widely used and accepted even today. Here are just a few examples of his far-reaching influence.

The therapeutic alliance

Adler promoted the idea that the therapist and client are equal partners in a mutually respectful alliance. In terms of actual therapy sessions, he is credited with advocating for the therapist and client to sit facing each other. This is in contrast to the arrangement of the therapist sitting behind the client, as Freud recommended.

The inferiority feeling

Adler introduced the notion of the inferiority complex as being the driving force behind the development of one's personality and their quest for self-improvement. He also drew attention to the consideration of how social forces influence the development of personality. Adler put forward the notion that each person needs to belong to and be in balance with society to achieve a sense of wholeness.

Child psychology

Adler is also noted for his contributions to the study of child development and child psychology, including his support of principles such as mutual respect between parents and children and encouragement contributing to positive behavior.

Community outreach

He also contributed to the use of psychotherapy as a form of community support and care. In particular, he advocated for the use of preventative measures to help lower the risk of the onset of mental illness.

Influence on other renowned psychologists

Adler’s work also has influenced the work of other well-known, distinguished psychologists over the years. Some of these include:

Abraham Maslow

Co-founder of humanistic psychology, noted for creating Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Karen Horney

Founder of feministic psychology noted for her theory of neurotic needs

Carl Rogers

Co-founder of humanistic psychology noted for his client-centered approach and the theory of the fully functioning person

Today, elements of Alfred Adler's approach to psychology are practiced by many. Some still focus on practicing Adlerian psychotherapy in particular. In the modern day, the focus of this modality is on building a relationship of encouragement and mutual respect between client and therapist. As a result, the client can have a safe space to shed their negative self-image—which adversely affects how they function in society—and replace it with healthy self-confidence and connectedness.

Seeking the support of a therapist

There are many reasons an individual may choose to seek out the support of a therapist. Those who are living with symptoms of a mental health disorder are typically advised to do so, but anyone who is experiencing a challenge in their life or who could simply benefit from a compassionate listening ear should feel empowered to connect with one. In most cases, you can choose between in-person and online therapy. 

For those who have trouble locating an in-person provider in their local area or who can’t afford in-person sessions might consider an online therapy platform, such as BetterHelp. You can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can speak with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of home, and for a cost that’s less than the average cost of an in-person session. Research suggests that online and in-office sessions can offer similar benefits in many cases, so you can feel confident in whichever one you choose.

Takeaway

Alfred Adler was an Austrian doctor and psychotherapist whose work centered on treating the individual as a whole, emphasizing community connectedness for well-being, and supporting mutual respect between therapists and clients, among many other principles. His work significantly influenced modern psychology, and many still practice updated versions of Adlerian psychology today. If you’re facing mental health challenges, meeting with a therapist online or in person can be helpful.
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