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What is Adlerian Psychology?

Adlerian psychology is a psychotherapy approach based upon the work of pioneer Alfred Adler. Adler is often considered one of the big three founders of psychotherapy alongside Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. His individual psychology approach has been adopted in many areas of counseling, education and community work. While Adler is not as well-known as Jung or Freud, his contributions to psychology and therapy are invaluable.

Alfred Adler

In the early 1900’s a psychiatrist named Alfred Adler had gained such prominence as a psychiatrist that he was invited to be a member of Sigmund Freud’s exclusive discussion group. This group met weekly in Vienna to discuss prominent psychology and psychiatric theories, and these talks went on to be the very foundation of the future psychoanalytic movement. As time went on, Freud and Adler found they had irreconcilable differences of opinion. Adler broke from the group and created his own theory of Individual Psychology. His approach later became institutionalized as The Society for Free Psychological Thought.

Adlerian Individual Psychology

Adler’s approach focused on the importance of nurturing feelings of belonging in the individual. He believed that a person’s feeling, emotion, thinking and behavior can only be understood in the context of that person’s life experiences.

Adler focused on the effects of feelings of inferiority and inadequacy on an individual’s mental health. These feelings, Adler believed, are usually a result of early age devaluation, a physical limitation or a lack of empathy.

Today’s Adlerian therapy includes four stages: engagement, assessment, insight and reorientation. The therapist attempts to understand the person’s history, beliefs, experiences, feelings and emotions to reveal the overall lifestyle patterns of the individual. The therapist can then help the individual develop new ways of thinking about their situations and encourage the individual to reinforce the new insight. This can help change a person’s responses and behaviors to circumstances they encounter.

Adler was one of the first psychologists to provide group counseling, public education and family counseling to help teach the general public about psychology. He hoped that by teaching the public about psychology he could improve the human condition. The goal of Adler’s individual psychology therapy is to discard the destructive and dysfunctional self-directed beliefs, and replace these behaviors with new socially empowering tools.

Modern-Day Adlerians

An Adlerian is an individual who applies Adler’s principles in their work. An Adlerian could be a counselor, doctor, nurse, politician or blue-collar worker. An Adlerian believes that mental health is tied up in an individual’s feeling of belonging and contribution to society, and they strongly believe in the power of encouragement. Today, there are several institutions, publications and societies dedicated to expanding on Adler’s theories including the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology and the UK’s Adlerian Society.

Alfred Adler’s approach to psychology and counseling is in many aspects more contemporary and modern than the more famous theories of Freud and Carl Jung. Adler’s therapy methods strongly advocate for the individual taking responsibility for their own actions. Adlerian psychology has some limitations, but the approach is very well-regarded and becoming more popular with the newer generation of psychologists.

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