Adlerian Therapy

Adlerian therapy is a type of psychoanalysis which broke free from the Freudian school at the beginning of the 20th century.  The key belief of Adlerian therapy is that the humans are social beings and actions are driven by social forces.  Under Adlerian theory, no one is “sick” with a psychological disorder.  Rather, patients are stuck in pathology and they are encouraged to move forward.  The role of the therapist in Adlerian therapy is to encourage an optimistic mentality to promote change.

Brief history of Adlerian therapy

Alfred Adler is one of the three major contributors to psychodynamic therapies.  He began his work with Sigmund Freud as part of the psychoanalytic movement. However, Adler disagreed with Freud’s principles in many ways.  He did not think that human behavior and personality could be completely summed up as biological. Rather, he believed that social aspects and personal goals were of much more importance.

In 1912, Adler formed the Society for Individual Psychology.  Under his method of individual psychology, the uniqueness of the person was stressed as well as the holism of the personality.  Adler did not prove as influential as Freud or Jung to psychotherapy.  However, his methods are still commonly used today and his concept of the inferiority complex is readily recognized.

Key Ideas of Adlerian Therapy

Adlerian Therapy

The idea that people are naturally social beings is a key belief of the Adlerian approach.

The key beliefs of the Adlerian approach are:

  • Humans are social beings
  • Humans are motivated by desires to find one’s place in society and belong
  • Holism – the idea that the personality is complete and indivisible
  • Humans are naturally creative, active, and decisional
  • Human nature is driven by an unknown creative force to better oneself

Adler believed that all people formed an individualized approach to life in the first six years of life. Like Freud, Alder believed that perceptions of the past could have lasting influences and that we may not always be conscious of how these perceptions are influencing us.  However, Alder was distinctly different than Freud in theory.  Adler believed that human nature was driven mostly by social aspects rather than sexual urges.  He also believed that all actions were goal oriented in an attempt to better oneself.  Under the Adlerian idea of the inferiority complex, all humans feel inferior at birth and then constantly struggle to overcome these feelings throughout life.  This is the driving force which causes us to excel.

While Adler believed in the importance of the unconscious, he believed that the conscious was much more important and stressed it during therapy. Thus, Alder stressed therapy which set goals and stressed the importance of successes, choices and responsibilities.

Under Adlerian theory, patients are not sick with a mental illness.  Rather, they are viewed as being discouraged and suffering from mistaken ideas about self.

Goal of Adlerian Therapy

The goal of Adlerian therapy is for the patient to realize his or her mistaken views about self.  The patient is then encouraged to think about his/her unique lifestyle and then find ways to incorporate this lifestyle in the social world.

The role of the therapist

Adlerian therapy depends on a collaborative arrangement between the therapist and the patient.  It is important that the patient trusts and respects the therapist and vice versa.  It is very important for the therapist to be optimistic throughout the process.  When patients present themselves for treatment, they often feel hopeless about their situation.  The therapist will encourage ideas that humans are constantly changing beings who strive for perfection.  Thus, change can occur.

Process of Adlerian therapy

Adlerian therapy typically begins with an assessment of the patient which involves interview questions about family and childhood memories.  It is common for patients to fill out in-depth questionnaires.  The therapist will help identify how family dynamics have influenced the patient’s sense of self and the world. Through assessment of personal history, the therapist will help the patient realize where “mistakes” have been made in regards to self and world perception.

In Adlerian psychology, change is sought on multiple levels, including to:

  • Views of self/world, belief systems, values, and goals
  • Structures of family/relationship dynamics
  • Social interest, emotions, and participation
  • Behaviors and social skills
  • Use of power
  • Motivation

There is no set method for invoking these changes.  Therapists can use a wide variety of methods which are individualized for the needs of the patient.

What is Adlerian therapy most effective for treating?

Adlerian principles can be applied to treat all forms of psychological disorders.  However, it is especially effective in treating childhood developmental or behavioral problems.  Because Adlerian therapy focuses on the goal-oriented nature of humans and the belief that humans are born feeling inferior, it can be useful in treating personality disorders which are linked to feelings of inferiority, such as social anxiety.

Treatment by Adlerian Therapy

Goals of Alderian Therapy

Basic Principles of Adlerian Therapy


Sherman, Robert and Don Dinkmeyer. Systems of Family Therapy: An Adlerian Integration. New York: Brunner-Routledge. 1987.

Watts, Richard E. “Adlerian Therapy as a Relational Constructivist Approach.” Center for Adlerian Studies. Web.

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