Adler’s Individual Psychology

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Individual Psychology. Psychology Fanatic
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Individual psychology, also known as Adlerian therapy, is a short-term, goal oriented psychodynamic therapy developed by Alfred Adler. Adler’s individual psychology centers on the natural feelings of inferiority and the influence of society on the individual. Adlerian therapy aims to develop an individual’s personality while simultaneously recognizing the interconnectedness of the individual to society.

Alfred Adler’s individual school of psychology challenged Freud’s psychoanalysis by emphasizing the importance of considering both internal and external factors to understand the individual. Key elements to Adler’s psychoanalytical approach was to understand the individual in connection to their surrounding environment (society), look for the person’ s life purpose (plan of life) in response to natural feelings of inferiority, compensation for perceived weakness, and childhood impact on the adult personality.

In psychology, we know Adler as one of the three pillars of modern psychology, along with Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung. While Adler’s individual psychology has quietly faded into history, we still find many of his fundamental concepts alive in modern cognitive therapies.

Key Definition:

Individual Psychology was developed by the Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler, who proposed that the main motives of human thought and behaviour are rooted in personal striving to compensate for feelings of inferiority. Every person responds to this basic conflict within their own personality structure, in their own unique way.


Alfred Adler, born in 1870, was an Austrian doctor who developed his own form of therapy called Adlerian therapy or individual psychology. He studied medicine, practiced ophthalmology, and later shifted to general medicine. Adler was among the original group of Viennese’s physicians that would meet with Sigmund Freud every Wednesday to discuss psychology and neuropathology, marking the beginning of the psychoanalytic movement.

Eventually, Adler parted with Freud in 1911 over basic differences in some key concepts. Adler diverged from Freud’s concept of “libido’ as “the key force behind symptoms of the neurosis.” Adler contended that the key force was “derived from adoption of an ideal end (a complete man) for the attainment of which the neurotic powers are mobilized.” Basically, what Adler proposed was that the force didn’t cause the neurosis, but the neurosis was employed to achieve a goal to compensate for inferiority (1927).

After his split with Freud. Adler begin his own branch of therapy, which would become known as Adlerian therapy or individual psychology. He developed his psychoanalytical approach, met with patients, and spoke about his methods until his death in 1937. Adler’s individual psychology is a forerunner to modern cognitive behavioral therapy.

Inferiority, Life Plans, and Compensation


Adler taught that the fundamental and “the determining factor in the psychic life of both healthy and nervous people” is the feeling of inferiority (2011, Kindle Location: 1,847). We all begin life small and weak, completely dependent on caregivers for our survival. Moreover, human beings remain in childhood longer than any other animal on the planet. Accordingly, we live in insignificant, dependent states for a large portion of our lives, and during significant developmental periods.

Adler explains “the child possesses a feeling of inferiority in its relations both to parents and the world at large. Because of the immaturity of his organs, his uncertainty and lack of independence, because of his need for dependence upon stronger natures and his frequent and painful feeling of subordination to others, a sensation of inadequacy develops that betrays itself throughout life” (2011).

In individual psychology, a key developmental task for the child is their response to this early conflict. Markedly, a child may use the sense of inferiority to motivate healthy action or they may relentlessly pursue fictional goals of perfection and omnificence. Adler wrote “this feeling of inferiority is the cause of his continual restlessness as a child, his craving for action, his playing of roles, the pitting of his strength against that of others, his anticipatory pictures of the future and his physical as well as mental preparations” (2011).

Maladaptive Responses to Inferiority

For some children, however, their response to childhood insignificance and inferiority is not so gracious. Neurotic urgings spring from inside and drive maladaptive pursuit of fictive goals. Erik Erikson places this conflict within the developmental stage of childhood and adolescence. He explains “as core pathology of this stage, however, inferiority is apt to encompass much fateful conflict; it can drive the child to excessive competition or induce it to regress…” (1998).

Richard E. Watts and Joseph W. Critelli wrote “superiority is the natural human desire to move from a perceived negative to a perceived positive.” They continue. “such strivings may occur in either a socially useful or socially useless manner” (1997). Basically, according to individual psychology theory, we either face the negative of childhood inferiority through pushes towards self mastery or devolve into narcissist fictions of perfection and omnificence. Accordingly, this early adaptation sets the stage for our life.

James Hemming wrote in the 1998 forward for Adler’s book Understanding Human Nature, that from this start “striving for significant self-fulfilling becomes children’s unconscious aim.” He continues “If the children’s blundering efforts to be recognized as people in their own right are greeted by inadequate understanding or by positively hurtful criticism – by lack of love, in brief – then children must be driven to the conclusion that they are not as good as others and are flawed in some dreadful and dispiriting way” (2009).

Life Paths

According to Adler’s individual psychology, “every psychic phenomenon is a preparation for the attainment of some end” (Vaughan, 1927, p. 359). In essence, Adler held that all behaviors are in service to some goal, whether we consciously know the goal or not. He proclaimed “a law holding in the developing of all psychic happenings: we cannot think, feel, will, or act without the perception of some goal” (2011).

Adler explained that if a therapist knows a persons goal, they can know in general how that client’s life will play out. In general, individual psychology theory posits that each person establishes a fundamental goal to escape feelings of inferiority, they build a life plan to accomplish the goal, and set in motion patterns of behavior to this end. Adler explains that “all movement of its constitutional parts will coincide with both the goal and the life plan.” He elaborates further that all psychic powers are under the control of a directive idea and all expressions of emotions, feeling, thinking, willing, acting, dreaming as well as psycho-pathological phenomena, are permeated by one unified life plan” (2011).

Compensation for Weaknesses

A child naturally adapts to the discomforting sense of inferiority by striving to rectify the source of the feeling. Consequently, their sense of inferiority drives a desire to develop strengths to compensate for the weakness. Adler wrote that “at the very basis of children’s development lies their struggle to compensate for their weaknesses; a thousand talents and capabilities arise from our feelings of inadequacy” (2009).

Riley Hoffman of Simply Psychology wrote, “However, sometimes, the process of compensation goes awry.” She explains that “one way in which this happens is that the feelings of inferiority become too intense, and the child begins to feel as though he has no control over his surroundings. He will strive very strenuously for compensation, to the point that compensation is no longer satisfactory” (2023).


Adler explains that a child only has a shot time to develop their thought processes to adequately deal with life obstacles. If a child continually faces failure, “their psychological development usually results in the stunting or distortion of their social feeling” (2009). He wrote that “the longer and more definitely the child feels his insecurity, the more he suffers either from physical or marked mental weakness, the more he is aware of life’s neglect, the higher will this goal be placed and the more faithfully will it be adhered to” (2011). Basically, neurosis is a symptom of childhood adaptations.

From these early junctures of life, a child’s patterned response to feelings of inferiority sets in motion a life of growth and development or a life striving for fictitious unobtainable goals of perfection and omnificence. Over the course of years, with the beginning fictions and focus as the foundation, the child builds a superstructure of defensive responses to protect against reality. This individual neurosis is not amendable to treatment to treatment without returning to the early foundations set at the beginning. Adler explains that “into this superstructure have been absorbed all the developmental tendencies, character, traits, and personal experiences” (2011).

“The hardest thing for human beings to do is to know themselves and to change themselves”

~Alfred Adler (2009)

Common Concepts and Definitions From Individual Psychology

Inferiority Complex

When the normal inferiority feelings of a child develops into exaggerated feeling of inferiority as an adult, motivating harmful distancing from others and avoiding of opportunities in individual psychology we refer to as an inferiority complex. Adler explains that inferiority complexes begin in the home. He wrote, “many children grow up in the constant dread of being laughed at. Ridicule of children is well-nigh criminal. It leaves a permanent mark on the psyche of children which resurfaces in the habits and actions of their adult lives” (2009).

Superiority Complex

In individual psychology, theorists posits that a superiority complex is a maladaptive response to the inferiority complex. When a child fights for security in a world they perceive as dangerous, they may rely on the development of fictions of superiority. Adler wrote, “thus arises a new tendency in their psychological development, a tendency towards dominance and superiority” (2009). Along with this drive is a blunting of social feeling.

These children still fear rejection, so their goal of superiority and power remains hidden but powerfully directs their behaviors. Adler explains, “The goal of superiority is a secret goal… it grows in secret and hides behind an acceptable façade” (2009).

The superiority complex is maladaptive because it rejects the normal conditions of life which bring happiness. Adler wrote, “happiness is possible only when the conditions of life are accepted; but when these real, essential conditions are pushed aside, they block themselves off from all paths to happiness and joy and fail in all those things that give satisfaction and happiness to others. The best they can do is to dream of their superiority and domination over others, despite the fact that they have no way of making their dreams come true” (2009).

The striving for superiority is a reciprocal. In short, it drives vain ambitions that fail to secure happiness. However, the individual, lost in fictions, instead of building relationships, continues to rely on life patterns of seeking superiority. Consequently, they live in continual disappointment.

Derogatory Critique

If the neurotic perceives the failure, sometimes in the worst of circumstances, they still anoint and elevate themselves above successful others. They may proudly proclaim, as they sleep on someone else’s couch, “I did not give into the system. Look how virtuous and strong I am!” These stabs, laced with nasty insinuations that success is weakness, giving into the society demands.

Adler explains that the neurotic seeking superiority often uses the derogatory critique, disparaging other to elevate their own self-esteem. Other become “nasty” or terrible “people.” The neurotic expresses their superiority complex through shedding their own faults and projecting them on to others. Accordingly, they often live by the hidden mantra, “if I can’t be better them, then I will bring them down.”


Adler explains that when direct paths to domination have failed, the neurotic “develops systems by which he imposes his authority” on those around them. The individual striving for superiority, while failing to live up to superior standards, must be addressed with cognitive adaptations. Vaughan explains “the individual covers up his unsuccess by a smoke screen of handicaps.” Basically, the adaptation serves to head off the humiliation of defeat. Vaughan continues, ‘decompensation is an unfortunate device for him that falls back on it, since it forestalls constructive measures” (1927).

The neurotic individual withdraws from the struggle, protecting his ego and striving for superiority through justifying excuses. Adler describes that such a person perceives the failure and excuses themselves with life by “constructing one or a number of ‘if-clauses’ (Adler, 2011). They mournfully proclaim, “if conditions had been different….”

In this artful display of cognitive reconstruction and blame, they place failures outside of themselves and maintain themselves as an unlucky but superior being.

Masculine Protest

T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “Adler describes masculine protest as any tendency to compensate for feelings of inferiority or inadequacy by exaggerating traditional masculine characteristics, particularly through overt aggressive behavior” (2022).

Adler theorized that everyone possess both masculine and feminine characteristics. Society has dubbed the feminine characteristics as inferior. Thus when feelings of inferiority overwhelm, many deny their feminine traits and accentuate the masculine. He regarded masculine protect against feminine stirrings and sensations as “the main motive force in neurotic disease” (2011). Adler suggests that exaggerated expressions of the masculine protests interferes with “adjustment to the communal level, be it profession, family, love or marriage” and in consequence their lives begin to fall apart.

Organ Inferiority

Adler found that “specific bodily weaknesses are very common in the neuroses and he observed that a feeling of inferiority, an inferiority complex, is a complicating factor” (Vaughan, 1927). Basically, the inferior organ nourishes a feeling of inferiority. The physical body is inferior, magnifying the intense experience of inferiority.

A person may respond to organ inferiority though overcompensation, compensating through strengthening other areas, or through development of fictions and self deceptions.

Individuality and Styles Of Life

While Adler proposed common elements of healthy functioning and neurosis, he firmly believed we approached life individuality. Our response to the primary conflict of inferiority is uniquely shaped by the entirety of our life. Consequently, a therapist can only determine the source of symptoms when they are “in possession of an intimate knowledge of the whole individual (Adler, 2011). He taught that therapists should only draw conclusions “when all the evidence was in and never from a single fact.” And that practitioners should judge each case should “only in its own particular setting” (Vaughan, 1927).

While Adler expressed concern over confining roles of personality types, he conceded that events strongly influenced the developing child. Hoffman explains, “Adler did not approve of the concept of personality types; he believed that this practice could lead to the neglect of each individual’s uniqueness.” She continues “However, he did recognize patterns that often formed in childhood and could be useful in treating patients who fit into them. He called these patterns styles of life” (2023).

Adler believed that “every individual is characterized by unity across the broad spectrum of personality–cognitions, affect, and behavior. personality, or style of life, is a cognitive blueprint of a person’s unique and individually created convictions, goals, and personal beliefs” (Watts & Critelli, 1997). Accordingly, He believed we are individuals and must be treated as individual during treatment.

Adler insisted on understanding the person as a whole and not forcing them into a simple single defined diagnosis. He explained by doing this, “they become living beings to us, not just cardboard cut-outs” (Adler, 2009).

Character and Personality

Adler defined character as “a psychological attitude, it is the quality and nature of individuals’ approach to the environment in which they live.” He further explains that character traits were not inherited tendencies but acquired patterns to go through life in a particular way.

Adler emphatically warns that “no evaluations of the character of individuals should be made out of context. If we wrench isolated phenomena from their life and judge singly, as one might if one considered only physical status, or their environment or upbringing, we are bound to jump to the wrong conclusions.”

Personality, Adler defined was “the pattern of the children’s difficulties, plus their reaction to the obstacles in their way” (Adler, 2009).

Birth Order

Adler believed that many social elements contributed to the developing child’s reactions to obstacles. As a result, a primary contributor to the individual’s development was the family constellation. Adler believed that birth order was a decisive factor in determining a child’s personality a pattern of life. He also believed that the relative ages and the proportion of boys and girls in the family impacted the developing child (Shyne, 1942).

Individual Psychology and Modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

We often credit Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis with the development of modern cognitive behavioral therapy. Certainly, they both are key players. However, they both credit Adler with the formation and direction of their work in psychology. Ellis noted that “it is highly probable that without (Adler’s) pioneering work, the main elements of rational emotive therapy might never have been developed” (Watts & Critelli, 1997).

Beck glowingly attributed Adler with focusing on the individuals introspections and observations of self. He stated, “Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology emphasized the importance of understanding the patient within the framework of his own conscious experiences. For Adler, therapy consisted of attempting to unravel how a person perceived and experienced the world (1997).

Adlerian Therapy

Adlerian therapy is a brief, goal-oriented approach that focuses on an individual’s striving for success, connectedness with others, and contributions to society. It emphasizes understanding the person as a whole, seeing their symptoms in context of their whole life. Part of gaining insight into the person, the therapist considers the importance of birth order and childhood upbringing. However, Adlerian therapy is future oriented. Accordingly, instead of lingering in the past, seeking causes to the disruption, the Adlerian therapist focuses on growth in the future by first understanding the person’s unique lifestyle then working towards change.

A fundamental belief in Adlerian therapy is that life styles are amendable. Adler wrote, “the fundamental factors that influence the psyche are founded in infancy.” He concludes from this that “upon these foundations a superstructure is built that may be modified, influenced, or transformed” (2009).

The Adlerian therapist strives to understand two essential aspects of a client: their way of thinking and the context of their life. Everyone adopts some form of faulty thinking—defensive patterns of cognition or assumptions, learned in early in life that continues to influence everything we do and feel in the present. Each individuals path to adulthood provides the context. By understanding the context, a therapist can understand the motivations behind maladaptive thoughts and behaviors that interfere with the client’s life. The therapist gathers information on the client’s culture, birth order, and other significant experiences that strongly influence the client’s thoughts and behavior.

Four Stages of Adlerian Therapy


The engagement stage involves developing the relationship between patient and therapist. This stage of therapy is the humanistic approach, creating an environment for change. The Adlerian therapist is supportive, encouraging, and empathetic, in order to forge a collaborative partnership to facilitate change. The pair (Adlerian therapist and client) work together to address the patient’s symptoms.


The assessment stage involves learning about the patient’s past to understand their present challenges. Adlerian therapy emphasizes the influence of birth order and early childhood memories. However, during this phase the therapist may also delve deeper into the patient’s past to understand the patient’s family dynamics, traumatic and rewarding past experiences, and the origins of the client’s various thought patterns.

Adler cautions “we must be very modest…in our assessment of our fellow human beings, and above all we must never allow ourselves to make moral judgments, judgements concerning the moral worth of human beings” (2009).


Insight involves understanding and helping the patient see themselves and their situation differently. Therapists ask questions and offer interpretations to guide the patient towards greater awareness and understanding. They explore the patient’s perspective and how their past may contribute to problems in their present.

Adler advises that the therapist must wisely and gently work with the client. He explains that the therapist “must proceed with cautious hints and with proper delicacy” (2009).


Reorientation entails the process of transformation. The therapist facilitates the patient in cultivating novel cognitive patterns and implementing proactive techniques outside the realm of therapy. These methods aim to foster flexibility and adaptability in thinking, while also reinforcing the newfound insights acquired during the therapy sessions. This phase is where the therapist and client find the early maladaptive response to their childhood sense of inferiority and rebuild from the beginning.

Adlerian Therapy is Flexible and Integrative

Adlerian therapy is integrative. A therapist may utilize any number of approaches within the general Adlerian approach—the fundamental goal for the therapist is to provide the therapy that the client requires. To achieve this, the therapist may need to adjust their approach several times. Markedly, Adlerian therapy has been empirically tested for over the past 30 years, supporting its effectiveness with any type of mental illness or disorder.

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Adler, Alfred (1927/2009). Understanding Human Nature: The Psychology of Personality. Oneworld Publications; 3rd edition.

Adler, Alfred (1920/2011). The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology. ‎Martino Fine Books.

Erikson, Erick (1998). The Life Cycle Completed. W. W. Norton & Company; Extended Version edition.

Hoffman, Riley (2023). Alfred Adler’s Theories Of Individual Psychology And Adlerian Therapy. Simply Psychology. Published 5-10-2023. Accessed 7-25-2023.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Masculine Protest. Psychology Fanatic. Published 8-12-2022. Accessed 7-30-2023.

Shyne, A. (1942). THE CONTRIBUTION OF ALFRED ADLER TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF DYNAMIC PSYCHOLOGY. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 12(2), 352-360.

Vaughan, W. (1927). The psychology of Alfred Adler. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 21(4), 358-371.

Watts, R., & Critelli, J. (1997). Roots of Contemporary Cognitive Theories in the Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 11(3), 147-156.

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