("Classical Adlerian Theory and Practice" is a chapter
in Psychoanalytic Versions of the Human Condition: Philosophies of Life and Their Impact on Practice,
edited by Paul Marcus and Alan Rosenberg.
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Over the half century since Alfred Adler articulated his theory
of personality and system of psychotherapy, his ideas have gradually
and persistently permeated the whole of contemporary psychology
(Ellenberger 1970, 645-648). The shift of psychoanalysis to ego
psychology reflected Adler's original thinking and Adler was "hailed
by certain psychoanalysts as a precursor of the later developments
of psychoanalysis" (Ellenberger 1970, 638). Adler's observation
that "human beings live in the realm of meanings" reflects
the social constructivist view of human behavior. An early feminist,
he held that both men and women suffered from our society's overvaluing
of men and undervaluing of women, and he believed the only positive
relationship between men and women was one of equality. His earliest
work in which he argued for the unity of mind and body was a precursor
of psychosomatic medicine.
Even the findings of anthropologists, biologists, and physicists
parallel Adlerian concepts. Adler's view of the interconnectedness
of all living beings and their natural proclivities toward cooperation
has been echoed by anthropologists (Ho 1993; Kim and Berry 1993;
Maybury-Lewis 1972), and biologists (Augros and Stancui 1988;
Hamilton 1964; Simon 1990; Trivers 1971; Wilson 1975). His concept
of the style of life, where one central theme is reflected in
every psychological expression, suggests the concept in physics
of the hologram, wherein each part of a whole is an enfolded image
of that whole (Briggs and Peat 1989). His concept of the final
goal, a fictional future reference point that pulls all movements
in the same direction, is similar to that of a strange attractor
in chaos theory, a magnetic end point that pulls on and sets limits
for a process (Nelson 1991). He believed in the fundamental creative
power of individuals and their freedom to choose and change their
direction in life; this is very similar to the biological process
called autopoesis which is the autonomous, self-renewing, and
self-directing nature of all life forms (Nelson 1991).
When sociologists, anthropologists, biologists, mathematicians,
physicists, and psychotherapists begin describing remarkably similar
dynamics, one wonders if we are on the brink of a new unified
field theory. Forty years ago, Alexander Müller frequently
referred to Adler's body of work as "philosophical anthropology,"
and held that it had the potential for providing the magnetic
center that would draw other disciplines together (Müller
The scientific paradigm shift and intellectual climate of the
1990's might well be ripe for a re-discovery of Adler's original
and full contribution to an understanding of human beings and
their relationship to the world. He created an exquisitely integrated,
holistic theory of human nature and psychopathology, a set of
principles and techniques of psychotherapy, a world view, and
a philosophy of living.
In this chapter, we will first describe Adler's view of the human
condition and his ideas of personality development, including
optimal development. Second, we will outline his explanation of
how this process goes astray and results in psychopathology. Third,
we will sketch the Adlerian levels of intervention which include
not only psychotherapy but also preventive programs in the areas
of parenting and education.
The Human Condition and Personality Development
The core of Adler's integrated complex of philosophy, theory,
and practice was a vigorously optimistic, humanistic view of life.
He offered a value-oriented psychology that envisioned human beings
as capable of profound cooperation in living together and striving
for self-improvement, self-fulfillment, and contribution to the
common welfare. Indeed, Adler predicted that if we did not learn
to cooperate, we would run the risk of eventually annihilating
each other. Thus, if we were to distill his view of the human
condition into one main idea, it would be the concept of the Social
Human, inextricably interconnected with others and all of nature.
The central problem that humans face is how to live on this planet
together, appreciating what others have contributed in the past,
and making life better for present and future generations.
Central Concept: Feeling of Community
Following from his view of the human condition, Adler based his
psychology on the central concept of (in German) Gemeinschaftsgefühl.
It is a difficult concept to translate adequately and has been
translated by the phrases social interest, social feeling,
community feeling, and social sense (Ansbacher and
Ansbacher 1956, 134). Adler and many of his followers came to
prefer the term feeling of community (Bruck 1978). It is
a multi-level concept. Individuals may understand and put into
practice some levels and neglect the development of others.
If people have developed social interest at the affective level,
they are likely to feel a deep belonging to the human race and,
as a result, are able to empathize with their fellow humans. They
can then feel very much at home on the earth -- accepting both
the comforts as well as the discomforts of life. At the cognitive
level, they can acknowledge the necessary interdependence with
others, recognizing that the welfare of any one individual ultimately
depends on the welfare of everyone. At the behavioral level, these
thoughts and feelings can then be translated into actions aimed
at self development as well as cooperative and helpful movements
directed toward others. Thus, at its heart, the concept of feeling
of community encompasses individuals' full development of their
capacities, a process that is both personally fulfilling and results
in people who have something worthwhile to contribute to one another.
At the same time, the concept denotes a recognition and acceptance
of the interconnectedness of all people.
These ideas of Adler's also speak to the current discussion of
the relationship between self and society. Unlike others, he saw
no fundamental conflict between self and society, individuality,
and relatedness, self interest and social interest. These are
false dichotomies. The development of self and connectedness are
recursive processes that influence one another in positive ways.
The greater one's personal development, the more able one can
connect positively with others; the greater one's ability to connect
with others, the more one is able to learn from them and develop
oneself. This idea has been rediscovered by recent authors (Guisinger
and Blatt 1994).
Adler saw the connections among living beings in many different
spheres and on many different levels. An individual can feel connected
with another, with family, friends, community, and so on, in ever
widening circles. This connectedness can encompass animals, plants,
even inanimate objects until, in the largest sense, the person
feels connected with the entire cosmos (Müller, 1992, 138).
If people truly understood and felt this connectedness, then many
of the self-created problems of life -- war, prejudice, persecution,
discrimination -- might cease to exist.
The feeling of interconnectedness among people is essential not
only for living together in society, but also for the development
of each individual person. It has long been well known that if
human infants do not have emotional connections with their caregivers
they will fail to thrive and are likely to die.
Furthermore, individuals need to acknowledge their connectedness
both to the past as well as to the future. What we are able to
do in our lives depends very much on the contributions made in
the past by others. A critical question that Adler saw facing
each person was, "What will be your contribution to life?
Will it be on the useful or useless side of life?"
The title that Adler gave to his system, "Individual Psychology,"
does not immediately suggest its social foundation. It does not
mean a psychology of individuals. On the contrary, Adler's psychology
is very much a social psychology in which the individual is seen
and understood within his or her social context. Accordingly,
Adler devised interventions not only for individual clients but
also for families and schools.
In German, the term Individualpsychologie means the psychology
of the unique, indivisible, and undivided person (Davidson 1991,
6). What Adler meant by this is that, first, Individual Psychology
is an idiographic science. How an individual develops is unique,
creative, and dependent on the subjective interpretations the
person gives to life. Second, Adler meant to convey that an individual
behaves as a unit in which the thoughts, feelings, actions, dreams,
memories, and even physiology all lead in the same direction.
The person is a system in which the whole is greater than and
different from the sum of its parts. In this whole, Adler saw
the unity of the person. In the symphony of a person's behavior,
he discerned the consistent melodic theme running throughout.
This theme may have many variations in tempo, pitch, or intricacy,
but it is nevertheless recognizable. Thus, to understand a person,
we must look at the whole person, not at the parts, isolated from
one another. After we grasp the guiding theme, however, it is
easy to see how each individual part is consistent with the theme.
Development of Personality
How do we come to develop this guiding theme? It is an active
and creative process in which individuals attribute meaning to
the life experiences they have faced. They construct out of this
raw material the subjective reality to which they respond. Thus,
they are not passive victims of heredity or environment (not objects)
but active constructors and interpreters of their situations (subjects).
This process begins in infancy as children become conscious of
felt insufficiencies in the face of normal, everyday tasks, especially
when they compare themselves to older children and adults. As
a result, they experience what Adler called inferiority
feelings, which are the very normal reactions to the
awareness of not being able to function in a way that we wish.
Adler also described this as experiencing a "minus situation."
These feelings become motivation for striving toward what he called
a "plus situation."
Individuals strive in this direction because of the "creative
power of life, which expresses itself in the desire to develop,
to strive, to achieve, and even to compensate for defeats in one
direction by striving for success in another. This power is teleological,
it expresses itself in the striving after a goal, and, in this
striving, every bodily and psychological movement is made to cooperate"
(Ansbacher and Ansbacher 1956, 92).
Influenced by the German philosopher Hans Vaihinger, Adler held
that individuals were not always guided in their actions by reality.
They were also guided by fictions, or what they believe to be
true, though these beliefs are largely unconscious (Vaihinger
1925). These ideas formed the basis of Adler's concept of the
final goal. The final goal is a fictional
creation of the individual--an imagined ideal situation of perfection,
completion, or overcoming. Movement toward the final goal is motivated
by a striving to overcome the feelings of inferiority. Although
the final goal represents a subjective, fictional view of the
future, it is what guides the person in the present.
In an active, courageous individual possessing a strong feeling
of community, the striving toward the final goal to overcome inferiority
feelings may be expressed as a life-long movement toward optimal
development -- with full realization that there is no end point
to this striving. This is quite similar to Abraham Maslow's view
of individuals striving toward self actualization -- toward the
full realization of their potential (Maslow 1970).
In dealing with inferiority feelings and developing the final
goal, the influences of the family (both parents and siblings)
as well as external social influences may be critical. Children
learn to cope with and/or overcome difficulties in life through
the support and encouragement of significant others who promote
their development, cooperation, and interdependence. Adler considered
the connection with and influence of the mother as the primary
factor in the early development of the feeling of community. In
our current social structure, fathers and caregivers are also
recognized as important influences. With this positive foundation,
children are likely to grow up to handle what Adler called the
three tasks of life, work, community, and love, in a satisfactory
way (Adler 1992a, 16-18). As a result, they are likely to develop
the courage and ability to continue their growth and make a contribution
to life. If, however, children do not receive the proper encouragement
and support and, as a result, their feelings of inferiority become
exaggerated, they are likely to be discouraged. They may adopt
a final goal that is equally exaggerated to compensate for their
deeply felt inferiority. Instead of developing themselves and
overcoming difficulties, they pursue a goal of imagined superiority
and consequently must avoid real tests of themselves. Their final
goal would then be an egocentric one, on the useless side of life,
rather than a goal of cooperation with others and a feeling of
community. The final goal is the result of a process that is unique
to each individual. Two persons with similar feelings of inferiority
-- e.g., a deeply felt lack of intelligence -- may develop very
different goals. One person's goal might be to enlist others in
his or service, thus avoiding any tests of intelligence that might
be failed. The other's goal might be to outdo all others thereby
demonstrating her superior intelligence in all situations.
Adler called an individual's characteristic approach to life the
style of life. In various writings throughout Adler's
career, he expressed this concept as self or ego, personality,
individuality, the unity of the personality, an individual form
of creative activity, the method of facing problems, one's opinion
about oneself and the problems of life, or the whole attitude
toward life (Ansbacher and Ansbacher 1956, 174).
The style of life, then, becomes the way in which individuals
approach or avoid the three main tasks of life and try to realize
their fictional final goal. In healthy persons, this dealing with
the tasks of life is relatively flexible. They can find many ways
of solving problems and, when one way is blocked, they can choose
another. This is not so for the disturbed individuals who usually
insist on one way or no way.
Like others, Adler viewed the first five years of life as central
in the development of personality. By that time, children have
experienced enough to have adopted a prototype of their goal and
style of life, although there can be some modification throughout
the rest of childhood and adolescence. After that, these ways
of conceiving of both self and the world seem to fashion for us
a set of lenses through which we see the world. Adler called this
the scheme of apperception. Individual perception,
then, is limited, and there will always be a discrepancy between
reality and the perception of it. For normal people, this discrepancy
is relatively small; for psychologically disturbed people, the
discrepancy is much greater.
In an optimal situation of development, adults will win childrens'
cooperation, helping them to develop a sense of significance through
contributing to others, minimizing their inferiority feelings,
stimulating their courage, guiding them to be active, and helping
them feel a part of the whole. These experiences will help children
identify and develop their capacities and become cooperative,
productive, and satisfied adults. They will be able to see and
feel their interdependence with others and be challenged to develop
sufficient courage to deal with difficulties, to connect intimately
with others, and to improve themselves for the benefit of all.
They may eventually be guided by universal values or principles
-- perhaps of justice, beauty, truth, etc. They will be able to
use their inferiority feelings as spurs for continued development.
They will strive for superiority over difficulties rather than
superiority over others. They will have solved the problems posed
by the tasks of life in a mutually beneficial way.
This optimal development is different from what is commonly referred
to as "normal" or "average." Although many
people are reasonably cooperative, they may do just enough in
relationships and in work to get by, living without deep commitment
and passion and not functioning at their maximum potential. They
may be somewhat bored and may endure chronic tension or "stress"
without significant emotional or physical symptoms. When they
face particularly difficult challenges, they may not have developed
their courage and cooperation to the extent that they are able
to cope adequately. At that point, they may experience a shock
that might trigger psychological symptoms. Examples of challenges
that might trigger such symptoms include layoffs, illnesses, marriage,
having children, divorce, middle-age, children leaving home, or
One potential challenge for mental health professionals is to
help these "normal" individuals develop themselves to
the maximum -- to set an ideal of mental health that is seen as
possible and inspiring, and to identify the steps needed to get
there. This is described later in this chapter.
Adler's View of Psychopathology
Adler's view of psychopathology is deceptively simple. He conceived
of psychological disturbances generally occurring in the presence
of two conditions: an exaggerated inferiority feeling and an insufficiently
developed feeling of community. Under these conditions, a person
may experience or anticipate failure before a task that appears
impossible and may become "discouraged." Adler tended
to use this term as opposed to terms such as "pathological"
or "sick." When individuals are discouraged, they often
resort to fictional means to relieve or mask--rather
than overcome--their inferiority feelings. What they are attempting
to do is bolster their feelings of self by "tricks,"
while they avoid actually confronting their seemingly impossible
difficulties. These tricks may give them a comforting but fragile
feeling of superiority.
A man who was pampered a child may give up looking for work, become
depressed, and then depend on parents or public assistance for
support. Forcing others to provide for him may yield a secret
feeling of power and superiority that compensates for his feelings
of inferiority. Unprepared for the normal challenges that might
lead to failure, he pays the price for his painful depression,
but uses it to maintain his passive self-indulgence and protect
himself from a real test of his capacities.
A woman who was abused by her father as a child may choose to
reject and depreciate all men as vile creatures and never engage
in a satisfactory love relationship. She may feel lonely, but
she can always feel morally superior to all abusive males who
are punished by her rejection. She would rather punish all men
for the sins of her father, than conquer her fears and develop
the ability to love one man.
At a more extreme level, a profound and devastating feeling of
inferiority might lead to a grandiose psychotic delusion of being
What all of these situations have in common are adults whose inferiority
feelings seem so overwhelming and in whom the feeling of community
is so underdeveloped that they retreat to protect their fragile
yet inflated sense of self. They employ what Adler called safeguarding
devices to do this (Ansbacher and Ansbacher 1956, 263-280).
Individuals can use safeguarding devices in attempts both to excuse
themselves from failure and depreciate others. Safeguarding devices
include symptoms, depreciation, accusations, self-accusations,
guilt, and various forms of distancing. Symptoms such as anxiety,
phobias, and depression, can all be used as excuses for avoiding
the tasks of life and transferring responsibility to others. In
this way, individuals can use their symptoms to shield themselves
from potential or actual failure in these tasks. Of course, individuals
may be able to do well in one or two of the tasks of life and
have difficulties in only one, e.g., in work, community, or love.
Depreciation can be used to deflate the value of others, thereby
achieving a sense of relative superiority through aggressive criticism
or subtle solicitude. Accusations attribute the responsibility
for a difficulty or failure to others in an attempt to relieve
an individual of the responsibility and to blame others for the
failure. Self-accusations can stave off criticisms from others
or even elicit comforting protestations of value from them. Guilt
may create a feeling of pious superiority over others and clear
the way for continuing harmful actions rather than correcting
them. Distancing from tasks and people can be done in many ways
including procrastination, avoiding commitments, abuse of alcohol
and/or drugs, or suicide.
These safeguarding devices are largely unconscious and entail
very real suffering on the part of individuals who employ them.
For them, however, the protection and elevation of the sense of
self is paramount, and they prefer to distress themselves or others
rather than reveal their hidden exaggerated feeling of inferiority.
There are three categories of influences that might stimulate
the development of these exaggerated inferiority feelings in children:
(1) physical handicaps, (2) family dynamics, and (3) societal
influences (Adler 1992a).
Children can either be born with or develop physical handicaps
(e.g., deformity, illness) with which they may feel overburdened.
The care and attention given to them because of their difficulties
may result in their expectation that others should always make
their lives easy and keep them the center of care and attention.
They may never test their own strengths. The pity or scorn they
might also receive may negatively influence their self-evaluations.
In any case, their inferiority feelings are likely to become exaggerated.
Family dynamics, including parenting styles and position in the
family constellation, is the second category of influences on
the development of the inferiority complex. Parenting styles that
cause trouble for children are divided into two main categories:
pampering, and neglect and abuse. Children who have been pampered
have come to expect being the focus of attention and having others
serve their whims. They have been trained to take rather than
to give and have not learned how to face and overcome problems
by themselves. As a result, they have become very dependent on
others and feel unsure of themselves or unable to face the tasks
of life. Thus, they demand undue help and attention from others.
These demands may be expressed through aggression (e.g., commands)
or through weakness (e.g., shyness), by positive (e.g., charm)
or negative (e.g., anger) means. Furthermore, when pampered children
grow up and others no longer do their bidding, they may interpret
this refusal as aggression against them, which may lead to their
taking revenge on these others.
Children who have been neglected, rejected, or abused have not
experienced love and cooperation. They do not know what it means
to feel a positive connection to others and, as a result, often
feel isolated and suspicious. When faced with difficulties, they
tend to overrate these difficulties and to underrate their own
abilities. To make up for what they did not receive as children,
they may feel entitled to special consideration or compensation.
They may want others to treat them well but do not feel an obligation
to respond in turn. Remarkably, both pampered and neglected or
abused children may have similar expectations as adults. The first
group expects the familiar pampering to continue; the other demands
pampering as compensation. Both may feel entitled to everything
and obligated to nothing.
In addition to the influences of the parents, Adler was one of
the first to recognize that children's positions in the family
constellation of siblings could affect their development in critical
ways (Adler 1992b, 126-132). Being a significant member of the
family is important and children may become discouraged if they
think they have a disadvantageous position.
For example, oldest children's experience of being "dethroned"
by their younger siblings may stimulate them to decide that regaining
their power is the most important thing they could do. Later in
life, the pattern of striving for pre-eminence may continue at
work, where they control subordinates excessively, and at home
where they may become domestic tyrants.
Second children, experiencing their older siblings as pacemakers,
may respond by continually striving to surpass and conquer them.
If this appears to be too difficult, these children may give up
and withdraw from the competition. Youngest children have many
pacemakers and can become quite ambitious and accomplished, or
they may not develop the courage necessary to realize his or her
ambitions and remains helpless babies. Only children tend to spend
their lives in the company of adults, frequently as the center
of attention. As a result, these children may fail to learn how
to cooperate with peers.
Of course, Adler realized that the examples listed above are only
a few of many possible outcomes. The objective position of the
child is not the influencing factor; instead, it is the psychological
position and the meaning that the child gives
to that position. Thus, two children born several years apart
may grow up in ways that are quite similar to those of only children.
On the other hand, if parents help their children cope with the
unique demands of their positions in the family constellation,
and if there is a cooperative rather than a competitive home atmosphere,
the children are likely not to develop the characteristics associated
with each of the positions.
The third category of influence is the societal factors outside
the family that also shape how individuals develop their views
of themselves and the world. Adler recognized the school as a
dominant influence and spent much of his time training teachers
and establishing child guidance clinics attached to the schools
Social discrimination on the basis of poverty, ethnicity, gender,
religion, or educational level can also exacerbate inferiority
feelings. Adler emphasized that it was not just the objective
facts or influences that had an impact on the child, but the interpretation
the child gives to them. Children who are discriminated against
because of physical deformities or socio-economic status, for
example, may find maintaining a positive sense of self difficult.
But doing so is possible if someone provides sufficient contact,
understanding, and encouragement.
Finally, in a way that was far ahead of many others of his day,
Adler recognized the destructive influence of our culture's archaic
view of men and women. He observed that women were typically devalued
and this was a major influence in their exaggerated feelings of
inferiority. But he also realized that men, too, were adversely
affected. The over-valuing of men often leads to extremely high
expectations, and when men begin to see that they cannot meet
these expectations, their inferiority feelings also increase.
Adler felt that the healthiest arrangement is a recognized equality
of value between men and women, which would then result in a higher
level of cooperation between them (Adler 1980).
Early experiences, both inside and outside the family, in combination
with hereditary attributes and physiological processes, are used
creatively by children to form an impression of themselves and
life. A final goal of success, significance, and security is imagined
and a style of life is adopted to prepare for that goal. Individuals
who are not self-pampering or discouraged hold opinions of themselves
and the tasks of life that are reasonably close to what Adler
called "common sense." These individuals feel connected
to one another and have developed their ability to cooperate.
People who do not feel connected to others and have not developed
the ability to cooperate will develop a private logic that becomes
increasingly more skewed from common sense. This private logic
involves an antithetical scheme of
apperception that the person uses rigidly to classify
self, others, and experience. In child development, an antithetical
scheme is related to children's need for security. They quickly
slot their perceptions into very simple categories, often based
on whether the stimulus is considered "good" or "bad."
Under normal conditions of development, however, children gradually
develop the ability to perceive the subtle gradations of qualities
in themselves and others. Disturbed individuals, however, because
of their heightened feelings of insecurity, remain at the more
primitive level of an antithetical scheme of apperception. They
may, for example, see only the antithetical extremes of absolute
stupidity or total brilliance. Thus, if others do not recognize
their brilliance, they assume that others think they are stupid.
If they are not adored by all, they may feel neglected or humiliated.
If they are not totally powerful, then they must be totally powerless.
While the scheme limits the person's ability to make realistic
judgments, it does serve the purpose of protecting the person's
choice of a final goal and life style. If an individual feels
totally powerless, then it is perfectly logical (from the point
of view of his private logic) and is seemingly in his best interests
to compensate by grabbing all the power he can, even if this harms
others. The person ignores or justifies this harm because of his
feeling of being totally powerless. In reality, however, he is
not totally powerless. But if he recognized this,
he would lose the justification or motivation to strive in the
direction of the final goal.
Discouraged individuals may function relatively well for some
time. Their functioning, however, is based on a pretense of value
or significance that emerges from their private ideas which do
not hold up in reality. Eventually, their private views clash
with reality and lead to a shock -- e.g., difficulties in work,
friendships, love relationships, or family -- which may lead to
the development of symptoms.
These symptoms, however, are not the main focus of an Adlerian
understanding of psychological difficulties. What is important
is how individuals use their symptoms. Symptoms
are actually the smoke covering the fire of inferiority feelings.
The symptoms create a detour around and distance from the threatening
tasks of life, protecting the pretense. Three factors distinguish
mild psychological disorders from severe disorders: the depth
of the inferiority feelings, the lack of the feeling of community,
and the height of the final goal.
In focusing too much on the symptoms, per se, we run the risk
of neglecting what underlies the symptoms -- the inferiority feelings.
Unless the severity of these inferiority feelings is diminished,
the client will continue to use the symptoms like a crutch for
an injured, unhealed limb. And until this process is uncovered
and resolved, the person may just substitute one symptom for another.
Adler's contributions to mental health included several levels
of intervention. While the art of psychotherapy was his primary
work, he also had a major impact on the field of education in
efforts to prevent psychological disorders (Adler 1957). Adler
started by training parents, but realized that in order to reach
the majority of children he needed to switch his focus to teachers.
In Vienna he spent a great deal of time lecturing to teachers
and demonstrating how to understand and influence children. In
addition, he was asked to establish child guidance clinics attached
to the schools throughout Vienna. He saw prevention through education
as the first level of intervention and as a great investment in
the future. Continuing in these efforts, many of Adler's followers
simplified some of the ideas for use by teachers and parents (Dreikurs
and Soltz 1964; Dreikurs and Grey 1968), thus furthering Adler's
The next level of intervention is counseling. Adlerian counseling
is generally time-limited, supportive therapy that is usually
focused on specific problems. It leads to moderate insight, attitude
change, and behavioral change. Anthony Bruck, an associate of
Adler, developed brief counseling to a fine art, including the
use of explanatory graphics and charts (Bruck, 1978). Examples
of the focus of counseling include parenting, marital relationships,
and career choice and development. These interventions can help
individuals cope with developmental milestones, life crises, and
change points in their lives. The potential for personality change
at a deep level, however, lies in psychotherapy.
The overall goal of Adlerian psychotherapy is helping an individual
develop from a partially functioning person into a more fully
functioning one. Fully functioning means solving each of the areas
of life more cooperatively, more courageously, with a greater
sense of contribution and a greater sense of satisfaction. To
do this, an individual must identify and work toward becoming
her best self. In other words, the overall goal of therapy is
to increase the individual's feeling of community. This is very
practical. It is not merely a matter of gaining insight, but of
using that insight to take concrete steps to improve relationships
with family, friends, community, and work. In its largest sense,
the goal of therapy is not to improve just the client's life;
the therapist is working to improve the quality of life for everyone
in the client's circle of contact, as well as improving society
through the client.
Thus, the first specific goal of therapy is not necessarily fulfilling
the client's expectation. The client may want instant, and somewhat
magical, relief of symptoms or to continue what he is doing without
feeling so uncomfortable. The therapist has to be sympathetic
to this desire, but must clarify and establish, as quickly as
possible, the cooperative working relationship that is required
for genuine improvement of a difficult situation.
Adler suggested that we must provide a belated parental influence
of caring, support, encouragement and stimulation to cooperate.
By reawakening courage and creativity in the client, a new, unfamiliar
feeling of community may develop as he discovers that he has something
valuable to offer. Some people have been cared for in a mistakenly
indulgent way and have absorbed it, but they have not learned
to feel or express a genuine caring for others. These people,
although they need to be cared for in a new encouraging way, also
need to be challenged to start caring for others in this new way.
Stages of Classical Adlerian Psychotherapy
For teaching purposes, Adlerian psychotherapy can be divided into
twelve stages, and within each stage, cognitive, affective, and
behavioral changes are gradually promoted (Stein, 1990). At the
last three stages, the spiritual domain can also be addressed.
The stages reflect progressive strategies for awakening a client's
underdeveloped feeling of community. What we must remember, however,
is that the actual therapy is very spontaneous and creative and
cannot be systematized into steps to which we rigidly adhere.
Empathy and encouragement, although emphasized at certain points,
are present in every stage of effective psychotherapy. A highly
abbreviated overview of the twelve stages follows [The stages
were suggested by Sophia de vries who studied with Alfred Adler.
They were then developed by Henry Stein].
Stage One: Empathy-Relationship Stage
The initial therapeutic goal is to help the client become a more
cooperative person, and this starts with learning to cooperate
in therapy. When the client's cooperation is lacking, the therapist
can diplomatically point to this. If the client attempts to endorse
full responsibility for change to the therapist, the therapist
can suggest that the rate of progress will depend on the degree
of cooperation between them. Therapists may help in the discovery
of some new helpful ideas, but the ideas must be applied to improve
a situation. Initially, the client may need to express a great
deal of distress with little interruption. In response, the therapist
offers genuine warmth, empathy, acceptance, and understanding.
To understand the uniqueness of each client, the therapist must
be able to "stand in the shoes" of the client and "see
and feel" what the client is experiencing. If the client
is feeling hopeless, the therapist must be able to feel the client's
hopelessness without feeling sorry for her, but then step back
and provide hope for change. Thus, the therapist must be able
to come close enough psychologically to the client in order to
empathize, but withdraw neutrally at some point in order to generate
hope and discuss possible improvements. An atmosphere of hope,
reassurance, and encouragement enables the client to develop feeling
that things can be different.
Stage Two: Information Stage
The therapist gathers relevant information: the presenting problem
and its history, the client's level of functioning in the three
life tasks, information about the family of origin, early memories,
and dreams. Religious and cultural influences may also have significance.
When appropriate, intelligence, interest, and psychological testing
The information given always contains a degree of distortion,
as well as significant omissions. After studying the parallel
patterns of childhood and the present and analyzing the rich projective
material in early recollections and dreams, the therapist develops
preliminary hypotheses about the inferiority feelings, goal, life
style, private logic, and antithetical scheme of apperception.
Stage Three: Clarification Stage
Socratic questioning clarifies the client's core beliefs about
self, others, and life. Then the consequences of these beliefs
are evaluated and compared with new possibilities. Mistaken ideas
and private logic are corrected to align with common sense. The
client's ideas must be unraveled to trace how she first adopted
them in childhood. A client may have the idea that if his wife
doesn't give him what he wants, then she doesn't love him. The
therapist might ask a series of questions to illuminate the private
logic behind this statement: "Is it your idea that love is
only giving you what you want? What if what you want is no good
for you? Should your wife give you what is unhealthy for you?
Is that really being loving?" These questions will help the
client explore the meaning he gives to love and marriage and may
come to change his private views of these matters.
Symptoms may serve as excuses for avoiding something that the
client is not doing. One way that the therapist can ferret this
out is to ask the question: "If you did not have these symptoms,
what would you do?" The client's answer is often quite revealing
about what she is avoiding.
Stage Four: Encouragement Stage
The therapist cannot give clients courage; they must find it within
themselves. The therapist can begin this process by acknowledging
the courage in what the client has already done: e.g., coming
to therapy. Then therapist and client together can explore small
steps that, with a little more courage, the client might take.
It is through actually trying new behaviors and realizing that
disaster is not an inevitable consequence that the client's courage
Clients may have exaggerated inferiority feelings that they want
to eliminate totally, believing that if they realize their goal
these painful feelings will disappear. The therapist must first
reduce these feelings to a manageable level and then convince
the clients that normal inferiority feelings are a blessing that
they may "use" as a spur for improvement.
Genuine self-esteem does not come from the approval or praise
of others. It comes from the person's own experience of conquering
difficulties. Therefore, small progressive action steps, aimed
at overcoming previously avoided difficulties, must be taken,
one at a time. For many clients, this is equivalent to doing the
"felt impossible." During and after these steps, new
feelings about efforts and results are acknowledged and discussed.
In attempting to avoid failure, discouraged people often decrease
their level and radius of activity. They can become quite passive,
wait for others to act, and limit their radius of activity to
what is safe or emotionally profitable. Gradually, the level,
radius, and quality of a client's activity must increase. A move
in the wrong direction is often a necessary first step which can
then be corrected after commending the attempt. Without new activity
and experimentation there will be little real progress. Some new
success must be achieved to prepare for the next stage.
Stage Five: Interpretation and Recognition Stage
Psychological movements are the thinking, feeling, and behavioral
motions that clients make in response to the external tasks facing
them. Thus, in addition to listening to what the client says,
the therapist must be attuned to what the client actually has
done and currently does in relation to life tasks. Movements in
therapy are the most visible. Does the client come on time or
late; get off the track; talk all the time and leave little opportunity
for the therapist to say anything; agree with everything but "forget"
to put it into practice between sessions? The therapist's job
is to describe these movements precisely and help the client identify
the immediate goals or final goal to which they lead.
Depreciation and aggression are tactics clients use to elevate
artificially their self esteem and punish others for not living
up to their mistaken expectations. Clients are often quite clever
in adopting the weapon that will hurt others the most. The therapist
must show the client how ineffective or childish the weapons are
or that they eventually hurt the client more than they hurt the
To dissolve the client's antithetical scheme of apperception,
the therapist must dialectically question it. However, the client
will probably resist this dialogue because the scheme provides
certainty and supports the pursuit of the childlike, egocentric,
final goal. Clients' final goals represent visions of what they
imagine will help them feel absolutely superior, safe, significant,
and secure. When faced with changing these final goals, the alternative
often looks like being nobody, worthless, and vulnerable. The
client's scheme uses cognitive rigidity to generate very strong
feelings. It locks the client into a dichotomized, superior/inferior
way of seeing the world, evaluating experiences, and relating
to others. Thus, to dissolve the antithetical scheme of apperception,
the therapist must help the client see the real and subtly distinguishing
qualities of people and experiences rather than dividing impressions
into "either-or," rigidly absolute categories.
All behavior is purposive and is aimed at moving toward the final
goal. If clients have goals that are on the useless side of life,
then their emotions will also serve these goals. Frequently, emotion
is used to avoid responsibility for actions. This is reflected
in the often-heard claims of the client: "He made me angry;
I couldn't help it." Each individual's use of emotions is
unique, and the therapist must be sensitive and precise in identifying
the underlying purposes of these emotions.
The final goal includes expectations of the roles that others
should play. If the final goal is to be adored, then others must
play the role of adorers; if the final goal is to dominate, then
others must be submissive. The therapist must help the client
identify these expectations and their actual impact on relationships.
Rather than having such demands of others, clients need to learn
how to generate self-demand, determining what they will do to
contribute to their own development and to other people and situations.
After unfolding the meaning of the client's movements and their
immediate goals, the therapist eventually leads to interpreting
the core dynamics of the client's inferiority feeling, final goal,
and style of life. Family constellation and experiences, current
behavioral patterns, early recollections, and dreams are integrated
into a unique, vivid, and consistent portrait.
In revealing the client's goal, diplomacy, good timing, and sensitivity
are essential. The client must feel the encouragement of new successes
before she will feel open and ready to face a clear picture of
the mistaken direction she had previously followed. The therapist
helps the client evaluate the goal and discover what is really
gained or lost in this pursuit--using logic, humor, metaphors,
reduction to absurdity, and what Adler called "spitting in
the soup." In this last strategy, the therapist makes the
final goal -- e.g., being powerful, intimidating, and demanding
respect -- "taste bad," perhaps by comparing it to being
a Mafia don. The discussion around the client's final goal reflects
a very vigorous form of thinking about the meaning of life and
what the client is doing with it and what else he could or should
Stage Six: Knowing Stage
Previously, the client relied on the therapist to interpret her
movements and their connection to the life style and goal. Now
the client interprets situations, sharing his or her insights
with the therapist. Many clients are tempted to terminate at this
point, feeling that they know enough, even though they have not
actually applied their insight and changed their main direction
Stage Seven: Missing Experience Stage
Some clients cling to strong negative feelings through powerful
images and memories from childhood. These feelings may inhibit
or poison their contact with people. Others may lack a depth of
positive feeling in their work and relationships. They try to
do "the right thing" but do not have a feeling of enjoyment
or affection in the process. They may have sufficient insight
but not have enough positive emotional anticipation to take new
action. While it is possible with some clients to promote change
through cognitive interpretation, with others an emotional breakthrough
is more effective. The therapist can use role-play, guided imagery,
or eidetic imagery exercises to dissolve negative imprints from
parents and siblings and replace them with new nurturing, encouraging
experiences and images. Ongoing groups, or one-day group marathons
are preferable for role-playing techniques, utilizing group members
for the parental or sibling figures. Longer individual sessions
can also be effective.
Stage Eight: Doing Differently Stage
Insight and newly found courage are mobilized to approach old
difficulties and neglected responsibilities. Small, experimental
steps are ventured in the main arenas of life. Initially, this
is going to be hard for clients because they will not expect a
positive feeling as a result of taking steps in a new direction.
However, it is possible to start with what the person is willing
to attempt and gradually make it more socially useful. A very
aggressive person who verbally attacks others might be encouraged
to attack his problems vigorously and productively instead.
Generally, all of the behavioral steps that clients are encouraged
to take in therapy are directed toward increasing their level
of confidence and changing their life style. However, profound
change occurs after the client and therapist have together identified
and discussed the client's final goal and life style. On the basis
of this insight, then, the client can work to change the main
direction of movement and approach to the three main tasks of
life (community, work, and love).
Stage Nine: Reinforcement Stage
Most of the client's actions have been egocentric, providing imagined
protection or self-enhancement, and neglecting the needs of others.
The therapist helps clients learn to let go of themselves and
focus on others, on tasks, and the needs of situations.
All of these new positive actions are encouraged and supported.
As the client begins overcoming major difficulties that had been
previously avoided, courageous efforts, good results, and feelings
of pride and satisfaction are affirmed. As a result, the egocentricity
gradually dissolves. Emotional coaching may be needed to experience
and express the new positive feelings.
Stage Ten: Community Feeling Stage
The therapist's feeling of community has been demonstrated to
the client continuously, since the very first meeting, by accepting
him unconditionally as a fellow human being, expressing a deep
interest through listening and concern for his distress, and indicating
a willingness to help. Perhaps skeptical of the therapist's good
will at first, the client has felt and appreciated the genuine
caring and encouragement.
The conquering of obstacles has generated courage, pride and a
better feeling of self, which now leads to a greater cooperation
and feeling of community with the therapist. This feeling should
now be extended to connect more with other people, cooperate with
them, and contribute significantly to their welfare. As the client's
new feeling of community develops, she will become motivated to
give her very best to her relationships and her work.
Stage Eleven: Goal-Redirection Stage
When the client begins to let go of an old goal and life style
of self-protection, self-enhancement, and personal superiority
over other people, he experiences a temporary feeling of disorientation
as a new horizon opens up. Now, after exploring and experimenting,
he may adopt a new, conscious life goal that is inspiring and
socially useful. He abandons his former direction and pursues
the new one because it yields a more positive feeling of self
and greater appreciation from others.
Clients constantly observe their therapists and may use them as
positive or negative models. How therapists behave is critical,
as it may interfere with the therapy process if clients see that
their therapists do not embody what they are trying to teach the
Maslow explored the characteristics of many fully functioning
people and concluded that what we usually refer to as "normal"
or "average" functioning is actually a commonly accepted
form of very limited psychological development. He set the standard
of psychological health many notches higher than the benchmarks
of most of his contemporaries. Adler and Maslow were in agreement
on this issue, which was not to set our therapeutic sights merely
on the "normal" or "average," but to aspire
to the ideal of what people could become. Not many clients may
be willing to reach this far -- but some will be interested, and
the therapist should be prepared to facilitate this journey.
As clients improve, the therapist can help them see that they
can use new, more liberating and inspiring guides for their lives.
These alternative guides are what Maslow called meta-motivation
or higher values -- e.g., truth, beauty, justice (Maslow 1971).
The values that individual clients choose will depend on their
unique sensitivities and interests.
Stage Twelve: Support and Launching Stage
The client has learned to love the struggle of overcoming difficulties,
now prefers the unfamiliar, and looks forward to the unexpected
in life. Feeling equal to others, and eager to develop fully,
she expresses a spirit of generosity and wants to share what she
has accomplished. Now the client can become a generator of encouragement
to other people.
Feeling stronger and functioning better, the client may need a
self-selected challenge to stimulate the development of his best
self. The very best in a person does not simply flow out, but
is a response to a healthy self-demand. It may be stimulated by
an unexpected situation or a chosen challenge. The therapist may
prompt the search for such a challenge and can help the client
evaluate what would be a worthy, meaningful, stimulating, and
socially useful challenge -- one that is neither too big nor too
small for the client's capabilities. For some clients, it may
be the recognition of a "mission" or "calling"
in their lives.
The creative freedom inherent in Adlerian practice demands a variety
of strategies that suit the uniqueness of each client and capture
the spontaneous therapeutic opportunities the client hands to
us in each session. Although the twelve stages represent a conceptual
center line of treatment, essentially, a unique therapy is created
for each client. The specific techniques used at any one time
depend on the direction that seems currently accessible. Four
main strategies characterize current Classical Adlerian therapeutic
technique: assessment, Socratic questioning, guided and eidetic
imagery, and role-playing [These strategies are rooted in the
original Adlerian treatment style and are enriched by the contributions
of Sophia de Vries, Alexander Müller, and Henry Stein].
Assessment. A thorough life style analysis serves
as the guide to the therapeutic process; generally this occurs
during the first three stages of treatment. A central technique
that Adler pioneered to assess life style is the projective use
of early memories (Adler 1933). These memories, whether they are
"true" or fictional, embody a person's core beliefs
and feelings about self and the world. They contain reflections
of the person's inferiority feelings, goal, scheme of apperception,
level and radius of activity, courage, feeling of community, and
style of life.
In addition to these early memories, the therapist uses the following
to do the assessment: (1) description of symptoms, the circumstances
under which they began, and the client's description of what he
would do if not plagued with these symptoms; (2) current and past
functioning in the domains of love relationships, family, friendships,
and school and work; (3) family of origin constellation and dynamics,
and extended family patterns, (4) health problems, medication,
alcohol, and drug use, and (5) previous therapy and attitude toward
the therapist. While much of this information can be collected
in the early therapy sessions, it can also be obtained by asking
the client to fill out an Adlerian Client Questionnaire (Stein
1993). This permits the client to answer in detail many important
questions and increases the client's level of activity in the
therapy process. In addition, it saves some therapeutic time and
enables the therapist to obtain a binocular view from both the
client's written and verbal descriptions.
Socratic Questioning. The Socratic method of leading
an individual to insight through a series of questions lies at
the heart of Adlerian practice (Stein 1990; Stein 1991). It embodies
the relationship of equals searching for knowledge and insight
in a gentle, diplomatic, and respectful style, consistent with
Adler's philosophy. In the early stages of psychotherapy, the
therapist uses questions to gather relevant information, clarify
meaning, and verify feelings. Then, in the middle stages of therapy,
more penetrating, leading questions uncover the deeper structures
of private logic, hidden feelings, and unconscious goals. The
therapist also explores the personal and social implications of
the client's thinking, feeling, and acting, in both their short
and long term consequences. Throughout, new options are generated
dialectically, examined, and evaluated to help the client take
steps in a different direction of her own choosing. The results
of these new steps are constantly reviewed. In the latter stages
of therapy, the Socratic method is used to evaluate the impact
of the client's new direction and to contemplate a new philosophy
of life. The Socratic style places the responsibility for conclusions
and decisions in the lap of the client. The role of the therapist
is that of a "co-thinker," not the role of a superior
expert. Just as Socrates was the "midwife" attending
the birth of new ideas, the Adlerian therapist can serve as "midwife"
to the birth of a new way of living for a client.
Guided and Eidetic Imagery. For many clients, cognitive
insight and new behavior lead to different feelings. Some clients
need additional specific interventions to access, stimulate, or
change feelings. Guided and eidetic imagery, used in an Adlerian
way, can lead to emotional breakthroughs especially when the client
reaches an impasse. Eidetic imagery can be used diagnostically
to access vivid symbolic mental pictures of significant people
and situations that are often charged with emotion. Guided imagery
can be used therapeutically to change the negative imprints of
childhood family members that weigh heavily on a client and often
ignite chronic feelings of guilt, fear, and resentment. These
techniques are typically used in the middle stages of therapy.
Alexander Müller recommended the use of imagery when a client
knew that a change in behavior was sensible, but still didn't
take action (Müller 1937). Some clients need a vivid image
of themselves as happier in the future than they presently are,
before they journey in a new direction that they know is healthier.
Role-Playing. In the middle stages of therapy, role-playing
offers clients opportunities to add missing experiences to their
repertoire, and to explore and practice new behavior in the safety
of the therapist's office. To provide missing experiences -- e.g.,
support and encouragement of a parent -- a group setting is recommended.
Group members, rather than the therapist, can play the roles of
substitute parents or siblings. In this way, a client can engage
in healing experiences and those who participate with him can
increase their own feeling of community by contributing to the
growth of their peers. When learning and practicing new behaviors,
the therapist can offer coaching, encouragement, and realistic
feedback about probable social consequences. This is somewhat
equivalent to the function of children's play as they experiment
with roles and situations in preparation for growing up. Clients
need to be treated with gentleness and diplomacy, yet offered
challenges that strengthen their confidence and courage.
Creativity in Psychotherapy
Adlerian psychotherapy is an art, not a science, and must be practiced
with the same integrity of any artistic endeavor. Though it is
based on theory, philosophy, and principles, its practice must
come honestly from the heart. It is not a mere technology that
can be practiced "by the numbers," nor is it bag of
tricks that can be added successfully to an eclectic pile of value-free
The uniqueness of each client requires constant invention. Similarly,
the personality of each therapist makes his or her approach inimitable.
However, as Adler himself (Hoffman 1994) and his followers demonstrated,
the personality of the therapist must be congruent with the philosophy
of the therapy [This comes both from personal knowledge of Sophia
de Vries, Anthony Bruck, Alexander Müller, and Kurt Adler
and the description of Lydia Sicher's work (Davidson 1991)].
Through a vigorous study analysis, an Adlerian therapist assesses
and reduces to a manageable level his own inferiority feelings,
identifies and redirects the final goal and style of life, and
develops on all levels a strong feeling of community. In addition,
the person struggles with the philosophical issues of life and
engages with the study analyst in a search for higher values that
would be most uniquely suited to that individual.
Maslow labeled this latter aspect of therapy "meta-therapy"
(Maslow 1971). He suggested that the fullest development of human
potential might require a more philosophical process, one that
went beyond the relief of suffering and the correction of mistaken
ideas and ways of living. Müller described the last phase
of therapy as a "philosophical discourse" (Müller
1968). For those clients who need and desire this experience,
Classical Adlerian psychotherapy offers the psychological tools
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(1) Unity of the Individual: The individual is not
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feelings, and behaviors are consistent with the person's style
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About the Authors
Henry T. Stein, Ph.D., founder and Director of the Alfred Adler Institute
of Northwest Washington, has been training Adlerian therapists for over twenty
years. He studied with Sophia de Vries and Anthony Bruck, both of whom
were trained by Adler. He has edited the 12-volume Collected Clinical Works of Alfred Adler, and has written four books on Classical Adlerian depth psychotherapy.
Martha E. Edwards, Ph.D., is a faculty member at the Ackerman
Institute of Family Therapy. She has taught Adlerian theory to family therapists
and has used it as the foundation of interventions and prevention programs
for families in therapy and schools.
Recommendation for Further Study:
The technique of Classical Adlerian Depth Psychotherapy cannot be fully learned just from books. It must be experienced personally with a training analyst. Our mentor-oriented, Distance Training Program in Classical Adlerian Depth Psychotherapy provides a rare opportunity to study and experience all aspects of theory and practice. Our training also includes an essential, personal study-analysis and extensive case consultation. For additional information, go to http://www.Adlerian.us/dist-tra.htm.