What is Adlerian Psychology?


Georgia O'Keeffe - Blue Morning Glories



Basic Principles of Classical Adlerian Psychology

        Alfred Adler (1870-1937) developed the first holistic theory of personality, psychopathology, and psychotherapy that was intimately connected to 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 disorder, a deep insight into the art of healing, and a great inspiration for encouraging optimal human development. Adlerís essential principles are:

  • Unity of the Individual:  People must be understood holistically

  • Goal Orientation:  People are always striving toward a goal of signficance

  • Self-Determination and Uniqueness:  Although influenced by heredity and environment, goals spring from the individualís unique creative power

  • Social Context:  The individual must be seen in relation to his/her social systems, and three main life tasks:  work, love, and social relationships

  • Social Feeling:  The individual gains security from a sense of belonging and embeddedness in his society

  • Mental Health:  The main criteria are a sense of human connectedness, and a willingness to develop oneself fully and contribute to society

  • Treatment:  Clients are encouraged to overcome their feelings of insecurity, develop deeper feelings of connectedness, and redirect their striving for significance



The Principles Defined


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 disorder, 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

The 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

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, 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.


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 previously felt as 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.