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 was an ophthalmologist in 1895 when he began studying the works of Sigmund Freud and delving into psychology. By the early 1900s, 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 passed, 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.
Meanings are not determined by situations, but we determine ourselves by the meanings we give to situations.–Alfred Adler
Adlerian Individual Psychology
Adler’s approach focused on the importance of nurturing feelings of belonging in the individual within the context of his community. He believed that a person’s feelings, emotions, 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. While feelings of inferiority can cause neurotic behavior, they can also be a source of motivation.
Today’s Adlerian therapy is intended as a short-term intervention with the goal of solving a specific psychological problem. The therapy is used in many types of disorders and with age groups including children through the elderly. It consists of four stages: engagement, assessment, insight and reorientation.
The term “engagement” is just another way of saying the client develops a trusting relationship with the therapist and is willing to accept input. In the assessment stage, the therapist attempts to understand the person’s history, including his or her birth order. That is important because where a person fits into the family can affect how he perceives himself. For instance, the middle child is often ignored and may feel invisible. Client beliefs, experiences, feelings and emotions also reveal the overall lifestyle patterns of the individual.
Insight refers to the observations the therapist imparts to the client. Using the relationship he or she formed with the client, he persuades the person to look at his history and the ways it could be affecting his present circumstances. In the final stage, the therapist reframes destructive thoughts and negative ideas in a positive manner that can help the individual develop new ways of thinking about his situations and encourages him to reinforce the new insight. This can help change a person’s responses and behaviors to the circumstances they encounter.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Like any therapeutic technique, Adler’s approach has advantages and disadvantages. The therapy can be used with clients of different cultures. For example, the emphasis on encouragement from the therapist is applicable to Hispanic and Asian clients whose cultures value collaboration, and the concept of the implication of birth order is something European North Americans understand because of their use of sibling rivalry and competition to motivate success. The therapy is also useful in virtually any psychological disorder and can be used in adjunct with play therapy, art therapy and other interventions.
Adlerian therapy, however, has been criticized for being vague. It has no defined therapeutic strategy for practitioners to follow, according to an article in the Johns Hopkins Muse. Additionally, one of its chief advantages, that of being universally culturally relatable, is also one of its disadvantages. Some critics point out that things like birth order have different connotations in different cultures. Adlerian therapy has also been decried for not being sustained by the evidence of its success in treating clients: the greatest disadvantage to Adlerian therapy is that there is not a lot of empirical proof that it works.
That being said, there is a growing number of therapists that are investigating the therapeutic techniques and attempting to build such a platform of evidential foundation. Additionally, the therapy is finding favor in areas such as group counseling.
Adler was one of the first psychologists to provide group counseling. Additionally, he employed public education and family counseling to acquaint the general public with psychology. He hoped that by that teaching he could improve the human condition. The goal of Adler’s individual psychology therapy was to help the client discard his destructive and dysfunctional self-directed beliefs and replace these behaviors with new, socially empowering tools.
An Adlerian is any individual who applies Adler’s principles in his work. This could be a counselor, doctor, nurse, politician or blue-collar worker, though a therapist should be a licensed psychologist. An Adlerian believes that mental health is tied up in an individual’s feeling of belonging and contribution to society, and these practitioners strongly believe in the power of encouragement. Those who espouse Adler’s theories can be found working in schools, clinics, hospitals, private practice and even in corporate environments where they foster a sense of belonging, cooperation and respect. 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 who, once educated and empowered by positivity, should be allowed to take responsibility for his own actions. It is that attitude of making responsible choices that must be somehow measured and documented for the therapy to gain complete acceptance. Adlerian psychology has some limitations, but the approach is very well-regarded and becoming more popular with the newer generation of psychologists.
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.