A summary of Adlerian theory, and why it matters …
Alfred Adler was born in 1870, a time when the seeds of psychology were beginning to take root.
Adler had a career in ophthalmology and general medicine before moving to psychology. He served as a doctor in the First World War before opening child guidance clinics across Vienna, and later an Institute for Child Guidance in New York.
As antisemitism began to rise in Eastern Europe and his child guidance clinics closed, Adler moved to the United States where he lectured. Adler died in 1937 but his work continues to impact the practice of psychology and other fields such as counselling.
At the beginning of his career, Alfred Adler worked with Sigmund Freud and was part of Freud’s inner circle. As their ideas started to diverge, Adler left Freud’s inner circle and continued to work on his theory of Psychology which become very different to Freud’s theory.
Key Aspects of Adler’s Theory
Alfred Adler’s theory is known as Individual Psychology. The term “individual” is bit of a misnomer in today’s language – a better term would be “holistic” as his theory goes beyond the individual, and into how society, and an individual’s upbringing, can impact them.
- Social Interest – Adler’s theory focuses on how we are working towards goals in different life tasks such as work. How we accomplish these tasks depends on our life plan, how we operate in the world. Perhaps the most unique aspect of his theory is the concept of “social interest”, where we begin to care about others around us. This is perhaps the only time when caring about society is formally recognised as an indication of a healthy individual.
- Encouragement – Another core aspect of Adler’s approach is “encouragement”, which is the process of building others up leading to positive changes in the individual. So far, Adler’s Theory is the only one to be explicit about the role of encouragement – yet I am sure many of us remember a moment when someone said something which encouraged us to move forward, whether it was “You have real potential in ……”, or “You are really good at….”, or even, “I know and believe you can do better”. This encouragement, when truly meant, can do more for us than anything else in moving us forward in an area.
The Strengths of Adlerian Therapy
From the beginning, Adler’s theory was practical in nature – as seen in his child guidance clinics.
Even when working one-on-one, Adlerian psychology allows for short, goal-oriented therapy, putting psychological support within reach of many who could not afford years of psychoanalysis. Adler’s approach was also teachable as seen in the 22 child guidance clinics created between 1919 and 1927, with several more created in later years until they were all forced to close.
Adler also acknowledged the role of birth order and described how one’s birth order influenced their personality. Keep in mind this was 50 years before Dr Kevin Leman released his book on the same topic and through which a lot of people have learned about the potential effects of birth order.
These are just some of the aspects of the Adlerian approach and for those familiar with Freud’s work which dominated the psychological world at the time, it is easy to see just how different the approaches are, and why Freud would disagree with Adler’s theory.
Adlerian Theory Today
If you are a counselling or psychology student, then there is a good chance you have briefly heard of Adler but nothing in detail. This was my experience, Adler’s theory was on one, maybe two slides in all my Master of Counselling and yet he intrigued me by being the first founder of a theory who applied his work for the betterment of the community (his child guidance clinics) that I am aware of.
The impact of his approach though might be more widespread than what you may realise:
- Carl Rogers, father of Person-Centred Therapy, was an intern at Adler’s Institute for Child Guidance in New York City.
- Abraham Maslow, Karen Horney and Albert Ellis are other well-known psychologists whose work was influenced by Alfred Adler.
While indirectly Adler’s work has influenced contemporary practice in psychology, his theory can also be considered the first in positive psychology.
If you have never studied psychology or counselling, then I doubt you would have heard of him. Rather you would be familiar with approaches, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which were impacted by his approach.
So why the lack of recognition?
One of the leading theories why Adlerian theory is not well known, is because it was so forward thinking and against the then-current views in psychology (primarily Freud’s) that it did not gain momentum as it should have. Rather, his theory aligns with current practice is psychology – where there has been a move from a problem-focused approach to a more positive, health focused approach. I suspect if Alder thought of his theory in today’s world then a lot more people would know of it.
Why Adlerian Theory Matters
Why does it matter? Psychology and counselling appear to be doing fine without Adler’s theory or acknowledgement of his work.
There are two main reasons why I think it matters:
- The first reason relates to the cycle of theories in practice. The lack of recognition of Adler’s work has meant many of his key points have had to be discovered anew, rather than being built upon. Surely this would have been better than beginning from scratch.
- Secondly, and more importantly, Adler’s theory might fill in the gap in current practice of positive psychology, where there are approaches but no holistic theory regarding the individual. This often means there is no structured framework from which a practitioner can practice. Adler’s approach can provide this, and is very suitable as it is not technique-focused. Adler’s approach focuses on the why and what of therapy but allows for variation and creativity regarding the how (such as what technique).
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Caveats: As with many theories, Adler’s original theory is slightly outdated and some parts redundant. But his theory, also like many others, has continued to be worked on since his death to bring it into alignment with today’s world.
- About Alfred Adler. Retrieved from www.adler.edu/page/about/history/about-alfred-adler
- Carlson, J., Watts, R. E., & Maniacci, M. (2006). Adlerian therapy: Theory and practice: American Psychological Association.
- Wong, Y. J. (2015). The psychology of encouragement: Theory, research, and applications. The Counseling Psychologist, 43(2), 178-216. doi:10.1177/0011000014545091