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Adler Individual Psychology

Dataset November 2013
DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4625.3520



1 author:
Varah Siedlecki
Liberty University

Available from: Varah Siedlecki

Retrieved on: 18 April 2016


Adler and Individual Psychology

Varah Siedlecki
Liberty University



Alfred Adler is considered to be one of the most influential thinkers in psychotherapy. Yet,
many of Adlers writings, and ideas have long since been abandoned or given little if any regard.
As a physician, psychiatrist, professor, author, husband and father he concerned himself with
answering the hard questions that plagued humanity during a tumultuous time in history. His
theory of Individual Psychology explores the holistic and phenomenological orientation of
human personality and behavior, and ties personal growth and achievement to social interest. He
considered social interest as the pinnacle of psychological health, and identified behavior as the
driving force, rather than the Freudian determinants of sex and libido. Although Adlerian
psychology has been neglected for decades, it is gaining visibility in the 21st century; Adlers
impact on psychology is unmistakable, his theory of individual psychology have organic and
spiritual implications that are far reaching, and continue to provide insights that remain relevant
today. This research paper will explore the insights, influences, and the organic and spiritual
congruence of Adlers Theory of Individual Psychology.
Keywords: individual psychology, social interest, superiority, neurosis, holistic,
prevention, organ inferiority, psychological health, organic diseases, mental disorders


Adlers Theories and Achievements

Adlerian psychotherapy offers a universal, multicultural approach that is congruent with
Christian spiritual perspectives. Adlers views may appear complex and comprehensive, yet they
can easily be understood from a common sense point-of-view. Adler was an excellent therapist;
however, his primary interests were in preventive psychology and the interaction of families.
Many of the issues Adler confronted remain highly relevant today - such as his insightful views
on parenting and family dynamics, overcoming inferiority, and striving for success.
Alfred Adler was born on February 7, 1870, and raised in Vienna, Austria by his middleclass Jewish parents. His mother was a homemaker and his father a grain merchant from
Hungary. Adler was born the second of six children, he was sickly and suffered much trauma in
his youth. At age 5, he nearly died of pneumonia, due to his near death experience Adler
decided to become a medical doctor. His earliest memories of illness, sibling rivalry, and
jealousy, contributed to, and likely provided the basis for his theory of inferiority, and striving
for superiority. Many of Adlers ideas and concepts that comprise current psychotherapy can be
traced directly to the views of his early childhood experiences (Feist & Feist, 2009).
After Adler received a Medical Degree in Ophthalmology, from the University of Vienna
in 1895, he began to study psychiatry to better understand his patients. Adler would later
integrate his holistic approach and concepts into his practice of psychiatry. In 1897, Adler
married Raissa Epstein and together they had four children. World War I (1914-1918)
interrupted Adlers scholarly work, during which time he served 3 years as a physician in the
Austrian military. After the war, Adler turned increasingly to social projects, including clinics


affiliated with state schools and the training of teachers (Salamone, 2010, p. 30). Adler and his
family left Austria in 1934; a few years later on May 28, 1937, Dr. Alfred Adler died of a heart
attack (Feist & Feist, 2009).
Basic Principles of Theory
Adler's experiences during World War I, likely fueled his social concerns to the degree he
became convinced that to survive humans had to undergo reform; Individual Psychology would
play a major role in facilitating such reform - beginning with his disassociation from Sigmund
Freud. In establishing his theory of Individual Psychology, Adler created a chasm between
himself and the psychoanalytic schools of Freud. Adler considered social interest as the pinnacle
of psychological health, and identified behavior as the driving force, rather than the Freudian
determinants of sex and libido. Contrary to Freud, Adler gave prominence to environmental and
societal factors, and emphasized teleology over causality, explaining behavior in terms of future
goals rather than past causes (Feist & Feist, 2009).
One of Adlers primary contributions to psychology is the theory that human personality
and behavior are inherently goal directed. Adler believed that all behavior is directed toward a
single purpose - the goal of which is to unify the personality through meaningful action. Adlers
concept of Gemeinschaftsgefuhl, commonly referred to as social interest or community
feeling, became a very important part of his theory (Paul, 2008). With this concept, Adler
changed the way people thought about human motivation and the world. According to Adler,
behavior is based on the subjective view of the individual, and only has value to the extent that it
is motivated by social interest.


Style of Life and Fiction

The principles that guide the individuals unique behavior are his or her style of life.
Adler referred to style of life as the essence of a person, a unified system that provides the
principles that guide everyday behavior, and gives the individual a perspective with which to
perceive the self and the world (Brink, 2010, p. 996). Adler considered the individual as a freewilled social animal, motivated by conscious and unconscious goals toward the future, indicating
the individual is ultimately responsible for their style of life. The style of life is fairly stable
after about age six, and it represents the individuals attempt to explain and cope with the great
problem of human existence: the feeling of inferiority (p. 996). Adler recognized that
individuals were endowed with characteristics of strength and weaknesses, and as such were
solely responsible for their style of life, successes, or downfalls similar to the Shakespearian
characters of Hamlet, Othello, or Cleopatra ones destiny is largely self-created (Carlson &
Maniacci, 2012).
Adlers idea of the self-created style of life is supported by recent neurobiological
research, which indicates that one of the brains primary functions is to create a model of the
world, an internal blueprint or roadmap. This model is established early in life and becomes
reality, serves as a guide for subsequent life experiences, and selectively attends to through
modification or rejection only that incoming data that fits with its program (Watts, 2000, p.
Adler identified the internal blueprint or roadmap as fictions. These fictions are used
to navigate through the world; however, when the maps were confused with the terrain
individuals would become too rigid, resulting in maladaptive behavior.


Inferiority Complex
One of Adlers most commonly recognized theories is that of the inferiority complex.
Feelings of inferiority develop as a child comes to the realization that they are smaller and
weaker, with less knowledge, and virtually no privileges compared to those around them. As
individuals grow, and continue to make such comparisons, such subjective comparisons
influence ones perception of self-worth and lowers self-esteem by way of inferiority complex
(Brink, 2009). Individuals subject to prejudice, those born into poverty or ethnic groups may
develop a heightened sense of inferiority, as would those with learning or physical disabilities.
Adler believed that everyone is susceptible to inferiority, since no one escapes the
deficiencies of childhood. Some people compensate for these feelings of inferiority by moving
toward psychological health and a useful style of life, whereas others compensate and are
motivated to subdue or retreat form other people (Feist & Feist, 2009, p. 74). Historical
examples of individuals, who have overcome inferiority, include Beethoven, whose handicap
was deafness, Helen Keller who was blind, and Martin Luther King, who overcame prejudice.
Each of these individuals made significant contributions to society, as did Adler himself, who as
a child, overcame death and became motivated to become a physician.
Superiority and Organ Inferiority
Healthy individuals will strive for success, or superiority to compensate for, or end the
feelings of inferiority and weakness, while others become reconciled to them. Those obsessed
with overcoming inferiority will over-compensate and become neurotic. Of most interest, to this
researcher, is Adlers hypothesis of organ inferiority - the psyches compensation for an inferior
organ, as well as the organs compensation for emotional stimulus from the central nervous


system. Organ inferiority is a mechanism which Adler has especially emphasized in his work
(White, 1916, p. 248), but which contemporaries, past and present have given little consideration
to. Faterson (1930) quotes Adler:
All manifestations of neuroses and psycho-neuroses are to be traced back to organ
inferiority, to the degree and nature of central compensations that have not yet
becomes successful, and to appearance of compensation disturbances. (p. 316)
Both organic and psychic inferiority, as described by Adler are largely derived from
pathological cases, which came to him for psychiatric treatment. In speculation of Adlers
theory - that all individuals are susceptible and disposed to inferiority - the question arises
whether such tendencies are found in individuals of healthy psychological profiles, or at least
those who have not sought out psychiatric therapy (Faterson, 1930).
Holistic Perspective
Adlers emphasis on organ inferiority reflects his holistic perspective in psychiatric care.
According to Adler (1956) the whole person (emphasis added) strives in a self-consistent
fashion towards a single goal, and all separate action and functions can be understood only as
part of this goal (Feist & Feist, 2009, p. 74). Adlers organ inferiority is a holistic perspective
that is at the very least a fascinating and unique way of considering behavior and its organic
relationship with the psyche.
Adler (1956) indicated the bodys organs speak a language which is usually more
expressive and discloses the individuals opinions more clearly than words are able to do (p.
223). Utilizing what he termed organ jargon (or organ dialect) Adler was able to identify the
inner meaning of symptoms - physically as well as mentally. The ability to trace correspondence


between organic, and psychic states is obvious, and illustrated by the long held association
between organic disease and certain types of emotional and mental disorder (White, 1916).
Some instances that illustrate this holistic relationship include: hypoglycemia (low blood sugar),
which can induce symptoms of delirium or anxiety; Alzheimers and Picks disease which causes
dementia; Electrolytic imbalances which can present as classical psychosis. Adler was a man
ahead of his time; he understood the holistic nature of human anatomy and its relationship with
the psyche.
Unity and Self-Consistency
Adler stressed the unique and indivisible nature of each individual; his holistic
perspective is the foundation from which he formed his tenet of unified personality (Feist &
Feist, 2009). Organ dialect is one example of how an individual operates with unity and selfconsistency. Adler avoided a dichotomy between the unconscious and the conscious, which he
saw as two cooperating parts of the same unified system (p. 75). This convergence of conscious
and unconscious is another example of the Adlers holistic perspective. Modern medicine has
just recently started to consider this holistic approach. To what extent Adlers organ dialect and
unified personality can disclose the conscious and unconscious, emotional trauma patterns of
behavior may someday surprise the medical community.
Prevention and Re-Education
From a therapeutic perspective, Adler understood the value of prevention, and effective
application of re-education when working with patterns of maladaptive behavior. The Adlerian
objective was to establish therapeutic relationships, and techniques with self-mastery as the ideal
goal. Adler had a genuine heart for humanity, he wanted individuals to compensate for their


weaknesses and overcome the unfortunate circumstances of life. He maintained optimistic,

therapeutic relationships with his clients, providing services to all for the betterment of all. He
excluded no one, he worked with lower-class families, couples and children; he worked with the
undesirables of society, the criminals, neurotics and psychotics; he created clinics and
educational facilities, training teachers and implementing his methods in the school systems. He
initiated group psychotherapy, and lectured extensively, and he did all this to promote the social
change he advocated (Carlson & Maniacci, 2012).
Maladaptive Behavior
Adler lived what he believed; he was the perfect example of a socially motivated
individual. According to Adler, healthy development would include a cognitive interest in
society, and a constructive behavior towards self-mastery, which would result in a socially useful
lifestyle. Those individuals lacking in cognitive constructs of social interest correspondingly
become maladjusted, and unable to meet the demands of life. Maladjusted individuals have no
social interest, and operate within a limiting realm of discouragement (Watts & Critelli, 1997).
More than a therapist, Adler was an encourager and educator. His first psychological
paper, The Physician as Educator, was published in 1904. Its major focus was the importance
of confidence, courage, and strength. He believed the greatest good fortune a child could possess
is the personal courage to cope with life. Adler contended, by allowing children to suffer the
consequences of their choices, self-discipline, strength, and courage would be the effect. Adler
instructed educators to allow children to experience the natural consequence of their actions,
rather than fear retribution from those in authority (Sweeney, 2009).
According to Adler, behavioral change only comes when a person is convicted through



reeducation to take on a creative view of self, and become active in constructing ones own
reality; rather than a passive reactive response to the environment. Constructive movement
begins when the individual recognizes their maladaptive lifestyle and a new understanding leads
to perceptual reconstruction and courage to change behavior (Mansager, Gold, Griffith, Kal,
Manaster, McArter & Silverman, 2002, p. 149).
Spiritual Congruency
According to Johansen (2009), for Adler life had no inherent meaning. Any meaning
bestowed on life was inferred through social interest. A healthy individual would be guided by
cooperation, social equality, respect for cultural diversity, and an authentic concern, and
compassion toward others. Adlers positive association between social interest and the three
major tasks of life neighborly love, work, and sexuality has significant spiritual implications.
In fact, Adlers tasks of life are facilitated by ones spiritual beliefs. Spirituality is a vital area
for counselors to understand because an clients spiritual beliefs typically provide the value
system by which they view themselves, others and the world (Watts, 2000, p.17).
Adlers psychological approach utilized cognitive orientation to replace faulty ideas or
beliefs; he modified or eliminated conceptualizations assumed to control or influence the
maladjusted behavior. This technique is in line with the admonition of the scriptures to renew
the mind and cast away all false or vain imaginings (Ephesians 4:23, 2 Corinthians 10:5).
Personal reconstruction and behavior modification mirrors the spiritual pattern of conviction,
repentance, and conversion found throughout the scriptures of the Holy Bible (Acts 3:19,
Romans 2:4, Hebrews 10:22, 2 Corinthians 5:17).
Adler acknowledged that nobody is perfect - we all suffer from inferiority. The Apostle
Paul reminds us of this as well: There is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10).



Watts (2000) compared Adlerian psychotherapy with core beliefs of major world
religions and found biblically based Christian spirituality is particularly congruent with the
concepts of Alfred Adlers Individual Psychology. Adlers notion of human nature, the tasks of
life, teleology and soft determinism are consistent with Biblical teachings (Johansen, 2009, p.
64). Other concepts congruent with scripture include striving for superiority, the role of
encouragement in therapeutic encounter, and most importantly Adlers concept of social interest.
[Adlers] placement of social interest at the pinnacle of his value theory is in the traditions of
those religions that stress peoples responsibility for each other (Watts, 2000, p.17).
Adler equated social interest with the mandate to love thy neighbor as thyself (Watts,
2009), which according to Christ is at the pinnacle of Gods mandate, it is the second greatest
commandment given by Christ in Mark 12:31. Leak (2006) also notes Adlers idea of social
interest as being congruent with the core values of Christian spirituality.
In examining the scriptures of the Judeo-Christian bible, one finds countless references
supporting the spiritual congruency of Adlers Individual Psychology, making Adlers
psychology one of the most adaptable schools of psychotherapy for working with Christian
clients (Johansen, 2009).
Adler characterized the individual by cognition, affect, and behavior; he emphasized the
central role of social functioning in his views of optimal health. His developmental views
highlighted the role of inferiority and a striving for success as compensation (Overholser, 2010).
Adlers theory emphasized subjective goals, which motivate and impact how an individual
perceives and responds to life. This includes how a person views oneself, others, and the world
around them.



Despite having developed a comprehensive model for understanding personality

development and guiding psychological treatment, Adlers influences have gone primarily
unnoticed by mainstream psychologist. However, leading theorists are beginning to
acknowledge Adler as a major source of their ideas (Watts & Critelli, 1997). It is not surprising
that Adlers theories have been largely overlooked, considering his approach was far ahead of his
time. His cognitive, psychodynamic and systems perspectives, and the benefits of his
preventive, holistic, phenomenological, teleological, and socially oriented approach has much to
offer psychology and other related fields. Adlers vision and influence impacted those few, who
worked or studied close to him. Adler played a significant role influencing Karen Horney on
social factors in her theory of personality, and Gordon Allport on the unity of personality. Adler
also had a major impact on Maslow, Rollo May, and Carl Rogers, all of whom studied under
Adler (Feist & Feist, 2009). Albert Ellis (1970) stated Alfred Adler, more than Freud, is
probably the true father of modern psychotherapy (Watts, 2000, p. 11).
Though Adlers theories may have been out of step with the prevailing contemporary
theorists of his time, the relevance of his achievements are most significant. His preventive and
holistic approach, his ethical values, and his social consciousness in fact changed the model of
analytical psychology forever. Most importantly, what gives Dr. Alfred Adlers Individual
Psychology its greatest value is its spiritual congruency with the scriptures of Christianitys Holy
Though Adler has not received acclaimed recognition, the influence of his theories is
very much alive. Adler once proclaimed that he was more concerned that his theories survived
than that people remembered to associate his theories with his name (Mosak, 1989, p.69).
Apparently, he got what he asked for.



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