Alfred Adler: Theory and Application

Alfred Adler (1870-1937), world renowned philosopher and psychiatrist, stressed the need to understand individuals within their social context. During the early 1900's, Adler began addressing such crucial and contemporary issues as equality, parent education, the influence of birth order, life style, and the holism of individuals. Adler believed that we all have one basic desire and goal: to belong and to feel significant.

Adler developed the first holistic theory of personality, psychopathology, and psychotherapy that was intimately connected to a humanistic philosophy of living. His lectures and books for the general public are characterized by a crystal clear common sense. His clinical books and journal articles reveal an uncommon understanding of mental disorders, a deep insight into the art of healing, and a great inspiration for encouraging optimal human development.

According to Adler, when we feel encouraged, we feel capable and appreciated and will generally act in a connected and cooperative way. When we are discouraged, we may act in unhealthy ways by competing, withdrawing, or giving up. It is in finding ways of expressing and accepting encouragement, respect, and social interest that help us feel fulfilled and optimistic.

Adlerian theory and practice have proven especially productive as applied to the growth and development of children. Adlerians believe that "a misbehaving child is a discouraged child" and that helping children to feel valued, significant, and competent is often the most effective strategy in coping with difficult child behaviors.

Adlerian Psychology focuses on people's efforts to compensate for their self-perceived inferiority to others. These feelings of inferiority may derive from one's position in the family constellation, particularly if early experiences of humiliation occurred; a specific physical condition or defect existed; or a general lack of social feeling for others was present.

Adlerians are concerned with understanding the unique and private beliefs and strategies (one's life style) that each individual creates in childhood. This cognitive schema and life style serve as the individual's reference for attitudes, behaviors, and one's private view of self, others, and the world. It is when we have looked at our early life experiences, examined the patterns of behavior that repeat themselves in our lives, and the methods by which we go about trying to gain significance and belonging that healing, growth, and change occur.

As articulated by noted Adlerian psychotherapist Henry Stein, the theory and application of Adlerian Psychology have as their lynchpins seven critical ideas:

Unity of the Individual

Thinking, feeling, emotion, and behavior can only be understood as subordinated to the individual's style of life, or consistent pattern of dealing with life. The individual is not internally divided or the battleground of conflicting forces. Each aspect of the personality points in the same direction.

Goal Orientation

There is one central personality dynamic derived from the growth and forward movement of life itself. It is a future-oriented striving toward a goal of significance, superiority, or success. In mental health, it is a realistic goal of socially useful significance or superiority over general difficulties. In mental disorders, it is an unrealistic goal of exaggerated significance or superiority over others. The early childhood feeling of inferiority, for which one aims to compensate, leads to the creation of a fictional final goal which subjectively seems to promise future security and success. The depth of the inferiority feeling usually determines the height of the goal which then becomes the "final cause" of behavior patterns.

Self-Determination and Uniqueness

A person's fictional goal may be influenced by hereditary and cultural factors, but it ultimately springs from the creative power of the individual, and is consequently unique. Usually, individuals are not fully aware of their goal. Through the analysis of birth order, repeated coping patterns, and earliest memories, the psychotherapist infers the goal as a working hypothesis.

Social Context

As an indivisible whole, a system, the human being is also a part of larger wholes or systems -- the family, the community, all of humanity, our planet, and the cosmos. In these contexts, we meet the three important life tasks: occupation, love and sex, and our relationship with other people -- all social challenges. Our way of responding to our first social system, the family constellation, may become the prototype of our world view and attitude toward life.

The Feeling of Community

Each human being has the capacity for learning to live in harmony with society. This is an innate potential for social connectedness which has to be consciously developed. Social interest and feeling imply "social improvement," quite different from conformity, leaving room for social innovation even through cultural resistance or rebellion. The feeling of genuine security is rooted in a deep sense of belonging and embeddedness within the stream of social evolution.

Mental Health

A feeling of human connectedness and a willingness to develop oneself fully and contribute to the welfare of others are the main criteria of mental health. When these qualities are underdeveloped, feelings of inferiority may haunt an individual, or an attitude of superiority may antagonize others. Consequently, the unconscious fictional goal will be self-centered and emotionally or materially exploitive of other people. When the feeling of connectedness and the willingness to contribute are stronger, a feeling of equality emerges, and the individual's goal will be self-transcending and beneficial to others.

Treatment

Adlerian individual psychotherapy, brief therapy, couple therapy, and family therapy follow parallel paths. Clients are encouraged to overcome their feelings of insecurity, develop deeper feelings of connectedness, and to redirect their striving for significance into more socially beneficial directions. Through a respectful Socratic dialogue, they are challenged to correct mistaken assumptions, attitudes, behaviors, and feelings about themselves and the world. Constant encouragement stimulates clients to attempt what was believed impossible. The growth of confidence, pride, and gratification leads to a greater desire and ability to cooperate. The objective of therapy is to replace exaggerated self-protection, self-enhancement, and self-indulgence with courageous social contribution.