The Wisdom of Alfred Adler

Alfred Adler was a remarkable visionary and played a central role in the development of modern psychology. In fact, many of the today’s popular therapeutic approaches can be traced back to his foundational ideas. Adler brought forth the central role of social context and belonging as foundational to mental wellbeing. Unlike most, he worked from a place of optimism, empowerment, and a belief in the creative potential of all human beings. For Adler, psychology was as much about community health and social connection as it was about individual well-being.  

Freud, Jung, and Adler form the ‘big three’ in the history of psychology. Sigmund Freud first posited the unconscious, originated drive theory, and outlined the structural model of the mind that later formed a foundation for ego psychology. He is also widely known as the founder of psychology as a discipline and the practice of talk therapy. 

Carl Jung researched the unconscious through the early use of the implicit word association test, outlined our early understanding of the personality types commonly used today, and introduced elements of the numinous and spiritual into psychology. He also posited the existence of the collective unconscious and believed in the power of creative imagination for personal development or what he referred to as individuation. Early on, Carl Jung hoped to relate to Freud as a father figure and mentor, although they later began to diverge in their views.

Adler was a contemporary of Freud and Jung. However, Adler had little interest in Freud as a mentor. Rather, he hoped to collaborate in developing early psychoanalytic theory. Freud found an early ally and defender in Adler, who wrote in Freud’s defense around many central concepts that were often controversial in his day. Nevertheless, Adler held several conflicting views. Adler was eventually voted out of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society after pushing for more inclusive membership and a neutral meeting location (the group was meeting in Freud’s home at the time). Adler subsequently founded the Society of Individual (i.e., Indivisible/Holistic) Psychology with several of his followers.  

One difference that led to the final break with Freud was Adler’s view of repression.  Rather than viewing psychological disturbance as resulting from the repression of instinctual drives, Adler viewed such disturbances as the result of poor adjustment to society. For Adler, repression was one of many safeguarding mechanisms employed in attempts to compensate for distress and disturbance that results from feelings of inferiority within a broader social context.  

Basic Assumptions

Adler believed that we all develop a lifestyle or personality based on the interpretation of life events derived from our subjective private logic as we strive to find a place in a social context. We first strive for significance in our family as we compete with siblings to belong and form our early beliefs and a sense of self-worth.  

Adler viewed the lifestyle as the individual’s “rule of rules” or basic beliefs about how to belong and navigate life. We develop a lifestyle that helps to guide us (both consciously and unconsciously) through life. It gives us some ability to predict life and anticipate the future as it lends some sense of control. Within the road map of our lifestyle we find our basic views of self-concept, self-ideal, view of others, view of the world and ethical convictions.    

Adler viewed every lifestyle as adequate until it comes up against a task for which it was not prepared. Under such stress the lifestyle or personality struggles. Here, our self-concept may begin to fall short of our self-ideal and we may begin to experience feelings of inferiority. Likewise, if we fall short of the ways in which we believe we should be functioning in the world or our perceived expectations of others, we may feel inadequate, guilty, and deeply discouraged. We attempt to compensate in various ways to manage this position. Ultimately, the lifestyle is oriented towards the final goal, which is to gain a sense of significance and belonging. 

Adlerian psychology is optimistic. An Adlerian believes that mental health is tied to an individual’s feelings of belonging and contribution to society and an Adlerian therapist strongly believes in the power of encouragement. Adlerian therapy aims at helping individuals better understand the origin and function of the lifestyle with attention to the ways that it is both adaptive and at times limiting. It gently questions lifestyle convictions or core beliefs about self, others and the world (yes, Adlerian therapy precedes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT). Adlerian therapy also aims to encourage prosocial behavior and engagement with others based on the assumption that Gemeinschaftsgefühl or community feeling and feelings of belonging are central to mental wellbeing.   

The goal of Adler’s individual psychology is to grow beyond dysfunctional self-directed beliefs within the lifestyle and replace these with new adaptations and behaviors oriented towards the greater good. Much of modern psychology, including the more recent developments of positive psychology, can be traced to the pioneering work of this early visionary. 

Adler was the first community psychologist and viewed the health of the individual as intimately tied to a sense of belonging within the community, starting with the family and leading outward to all of society and the entire world. Adler was one of the first psychologists to provide group counseling, public or open forum counseling and education, family counseling, and child guidance as he pioneered efforts to help teach the general public about psychology. Ultimately, Adler believed that educating the public about psychology could improve the human condition and move us forward as a species. 

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Psychologist

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Published by tlindquistpsyd

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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