ADLER: INDIVIDUAL PSYCHOLOGY
I. Overview of Adler’s Individual Psychology
An original member of Freud’s psychoanalytic group, Alfred Adler broke from Freud and advocated a theory of personality and an approach to psychotherapy that were nearly diametrically opposed to those of Freud. Whereas Freud’s view of humanity was deterministic, pessimistic, and rooted in biology, Adler’s view was idealistic, optimistic, and rooted in social experiences.
II. Biography of Alfred Adler
Alfred Adler was born in 1870 in a town near Vienna, a second son of middle-class Jewish parents. As a young child he was weak and sickly, a condition that contrasted sharply with his healthy older brother, Sigmund. Adler developed a strong rivalry with Sigmund—a rivalry that was similar to his later relationship with Freud. Like Freud, Adler was a physician, and in 1902, he became a charter member of Freud’s organization. However, personal and professional differences between the two men led to Adler’s departure from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1911. Adler soon founded his own group, the Society for Individual Psychology. Unlike Freud, who was a gifted writer, Adler was merely a mediocre writer. His strengths were his energetic oral presentations and his insightful ability to understand family dynamics. During the last few years of his life, Adler lived in the United States and earned a reputation as a gifted public speaker. He died in 1937 in Scotland while on a lecture tour.
III. Introduction to Adlerian Theory
Although Adler’s individual psychology is both complex and comprehensive, its main tenets can be organized into six main topics: (1) striving for success or superiority, (2) subjective perceptions, (3) unity and self-consistency of personality, (4) social interest, (5) style of life, and (6) creative power.
IV. Striving for Success or Superiority
The sole dynamic force behind all our actions, according to Adler, is the striving for success or superiority.
A. The Final Goal
The final goal of success or perfection toward which all people strive unifies personality and makes all behavior meaningful. People are not always conscious of their final goal, even though they may be aware of their immediate subgoals.
B. The Striving Force as Compensation
Because people are born with small, inferior bodies, they feel inferior and attempt to overcome these feelings through their natural tendency to move toward completion. The striving force can take one of two courses: personal gain (superiority) or community benefit (success).
C. Striving for Personal Superiority
Psychologically unhealthy individuals strive for personal superiority with little concern for other people. Although they may appear to be interested in others, their basic motivation is personal benefit.
D. Striving for Success
In contrast, psychologically healthy people strive for the success of all humanity, but they do so without losing their personal identity.
V. Subjective Perceptions
People’s subjective view of the world—not reality—shapes their behavior.
Fictions are people’s beliefs and expectations of the future. Adler held that fictions guide behavior, because people act as if these fictions are true. Adler emphasized teleology over causality; that is, he favored explanations of behavior in terms of future goals rather than past causes.
B. Organ Inferiorities
Adler believed that all humans are “blessed” with organ inferiorities and that these small, inferior organs stimulate subjective feelings of inferiority and move people toward perfection or completion.
VI. Unity and Self-Consistency of Personality
Adler believed that all of our behaviors are directed toward a single purpose and that the entire personality functions in a self-consistent manner.
A. Organ Dialect
People sometimes use a physical disorder to express style of life, a condition Adler called organ dialect.
B. Conscious and Unconscious
Conscious and unconscious processes are unified and operate to achieve a single goal. The part of our goal that is not clearly understood is unconscious; to the extent that we comprehend our goal, it is conscious.
VII. Social Interest
Human behavior has value to the extent that it is motivated by social interest, or a feeling of oneness with all of humanity.
A. Origins of Social Interest
Although social interest exists as potentiality in all people, it must be fostered in a social environment. Adler believed that both mothers and fathers have crucial roles in furthering the social interest of their children and that the parent–child relationship can be strong that it negates the effects of heredity.
B. Importance of Social Interest
Without social interest, societies could not exist, because individuals could not protect themselves from danger. Thus, an infant’s helplessness predisposes it toward a nurturing person. According to Adler, social interest is “the sole criterion of human values,” and the “barometer of normality.” The worthiness of all one’s actions must be viewed by these standards.
VIII. Style of Life
The manner of a person’s striving is called style of life. It is a product of the interaction of heredity, environment, goal of success, social interest, and creative power. Style of life is relatively well set by 4 or 5 years of age, but Adler believed that healthy individuals are marked by flexible behavior and that they have some limited ability to change their style of life.
IX. Creative Power
Adler believed that heredity and environment provide the building materials for our style of life, but he insisted that ultimately style of life is shaped by our creative power; that is, it is shaped by our ability to freely choose which building materials to use and how to use them. In other words, Adler contended that people have considerable ability to freely choose their actions and their personality.
X. Abnormal Development
Creative power is not limited to healthy people; unhealthy individuals also create their own personalities. Thus, each of us is free to choose either a useful or a useless style of life.
A. General Description
The most important factor
in abnormal development is underdeveloped
social interest. In addition, people with a useless style of life tend to
(1) set their goals too high, (2) live in their own private world, and (3) have
a rigid and dogmatic style
B. External Factors in Maladjustment
Adler listed three factors that relate to abnormal development.
1. Exaggerated Physical Deficiencies
Severe physical defects do
not by themselves cause abnormal development,
but they may contribute to it by generating subjective and exaggerated feelings
2. Pampered Style of Life
Children who see themselves as being pampered develop low levels of social interest and continue to have an overriding drive to establish a permanent parasitic relationship with their mother or a mother substitute.
3. Neglected Style of Life
Children who feel neglected often use these feelings as building material for a useless style of life—one characterized by distrust of other people.
C. Safeguarding Tendencies
Both normal and neurotic people create symptoms as a means of protecting their fragile self-esteem. These safeguarding tendencies maintain a neurotic style of life and protect a person from public disgrace.
The most common safeguarding tendency is excuses, which frequently take the form of “Yes, but” or “If only.” By making excuses for their shortcomings, people can preserve their inflated sense of personal worth.
People often safeguard a
weak self-esteem by behaving aggressively toward themselves or others.
Safeguarding through aggression may take the form of depreciating others’ accomplishments, accusing others of being responsible for one’s own failures, and accusing one’s self as a means of
People with a neurotic style of life often try to escape from life’s problems by running away from them; that is, they withdraw or safeguard themselves by maintaining distance. People can withdraw psychologically by moving backward, standing still, hesitating, or constructing obstacles.
D. Masculine Protest
Both men and women
sometimes overemphasize the desirability of being manly,
a condition Adler called the masculine protest. The frequently found inferior
status of women is not based on physiology but on historical developments and social learning.
XI. Applications of Individual Psychology
Adler applied the principles of individual psychology to family constellation (birth order), early recollections, dreams, and psychotherapy.
A. Family Constellation
Adler believed that people’s perception of how they fit into their family is related to their style of life. He claimed that firstborns are likely to have strong feelings of power and superiority, to be overprotective, and to have more than their share of anxiety. Secondborns (like Adler himself) are likely to have strong social interest, provided they do not get trapped trying to overcome their older sibling. Youngest children are likely to be pampered and to lack independence, whereas only children may have even less social interest and tend to expect others to take care of them.
B. Early Recollections
A more reliable method of determining style of life is to ask people for their earliest recollections (ERs). Adler believed that ERs are not chance memories but templates on which people project their current style of life. These recollections need not be accurate accounts of early events; they have psychological importance because they reflect our current view of the world.
Adler believed that dreams can provide clues to solving future problems. However, dreams are disguised to deceive the dreamer and therefore are most accurately interpreted by another person.
The goal of Adlerian therapy is to create a relationship between therapist and patient that fosters the patient’s social interest, courage, and self-esteem. To ensure that the patient’s social interest will eventually generalize to other relationships, the therapist adopts both a maternal and a paternal role.
XII. Related Research
Although birth order, or family constellation, has been widely studied by psychologists and other social scientists, a research area more pertinent to Adlerian theory is early recollections, a topic that is beginning to receive increased attention by researchers.
A. Early Recollections and Personal Traits
Research shows that early recollections are related to a number of personal traits, such as birth order, depression, college major, alcoholism, criminal behavior, and eating disorder. Nichols and Feist (1994) showed that optimists and pessimists had quite different early recollections. In general, they found that optimists were more likely to include other people in their ERs, see themselves as active, have clear and vivid ERs, have more sustained interpersonal interactions in their ERs, recall events in which they gained success, and have more pleasant ERs. Other research (Buchanan, Kern, & Bell-Dumas, 1991) suggested that made-up early recollections may be as meaningful as actual ones.
B. Early Recollections and Psychotherapy Outcomes
Research has also shown that early recollections are related to success in counseling and psychotherapy. For example, Savill and Eckstein (1987) found that patients receiving therapy changed their ERs from pre- to post-treatment. In addition, Statton and Wilborn (1991) demonstrated that change as a result of counseling may be capable of producing changes in early recollections.
XIII. Critique of Adler
Individual psychology rates high on its ability to generate research, organize data, and guide the practitioner. It receives a moderate rating on parsimony, but the authors rated it low on internal consistency because it lacks operational definitions and low on falsification because many of its related research findings can be explained by other theories.
XIV Concept of Humanity
Adler saw people as forward moving, social animals who are motivated by goals they set (both consciously and unconsciously) for the future. People are ultimately responsible for their own unique style of life. Thus, Adler’s theory rates high on free-choice, social influences, and uniqueness; very high on optimism and teleology; and average on unconscious influences.
Classical Adlerian psychotherapy is characterized by a diplomatic, warm, empathic, and Socratic style of treatment. This climate embodies the qualities of respect and equality necessary for building a trusting cooperative, relationship.
A full psychotherapy can be envisioned as a progression though twelve stages. These stages should be considered as teaching guidelines and should not be interpreted as a systematic procedure. Psychotherapy is an art that must be practiced creatively. The best therapeutic strategy is frequently a unique invention for the individual client.
Establishing an empathic, cooperative, working relationship. Offering hope, reassurance, and encouragement.
Unstructured gathering of relevant information. Details of presenting problem and overview of general functioning. Exploration of early childhood situaiton, memories, and dreams.
Clarifying vague thinking with Socratic questionsing. Evaluating consequences of ideas and behavior. Correcting mistaken ideas about self and others.
Encouraging thinking and behavior in a new direction. Beginning to move in a new direction, away from life style. Clarifying feelings about effort and results.
Interpreting inferiority feelings, style of life, and fictional final goal of superiority. Identifying what has been in avoided in development. Integrating birth order, earliest recollections, and dreams.
Reinforcing client's self-awareness of life style and feelings about new successes. Client knows what needs to be done but may feel blocked.
When needed, promoting emotional breakthroughs with "missing experiences" that correct past or present negative influences. Use of role-playing, guided imagery, and group dynamics.
Converting insight into a different attitude. Experimenting with concrete actions based on abstract ideas. Comparing new and old behavior.
Encouraging all new movements toward significant change. Affirming positive results and feelings. Evaluating progress and new courage.
Using client's better feelings to extend cooperation and caring about other people. Learning to give generously of oneself and to take necessary risks. Awakening feeling of equality.
Challenging client to let go of self and the old fictional goal. Dissolving the style of life and adopting new values. Discovering a new psychological horizon.
Launching client into a new, creative, gratifying way of living for self and others. Learning to love the struggle and prefer the unfamiliar. Promoting a path of continual growth for self and others.
Comprehensive treatment strategies stimulate cognitive, affective, and behavioral change. The Socratic method guides clients to insights that generate decisions and plans for action. Guided and eidetic imagery, as well as "missing experience" techniques facilitate affective change and growth. Role-playing and "future scenarios" provide safe and encouraging behavioral preparation and practice.
Classical Adlerian psychotherapy attempts to bring each individual to an optimal level of personal, interpersonal, and occupational functioning. For some clients, brief therapy is the limit of their interest or budget and therapy stops at the fourth stage of treatment. For others, after completing the twelve stages, philosophical and/or spiritual issues are discussed.