Adlerian therapy, also known as individual psychology, is a psychotherapeutic approach that has its roots in the work of Alfred Adler. Adler was a contemporary of Freud but broke away to develop his own theories that emphasised social factors and individual choice. This therapy approach has been influential in shaping modern psychotherapy and offers a unique lens through which to view human behaviour and mental health.
Adler posited that social interest, or “Gemeinschaftsgefühl“, is a crucial factor in human behaviour. This concept refers to an innate potential for cooperation and empathy towards others. Adler believed that a lack of social interest could lead to feelings of inferiority and, ultimately, psychological distress. Studies supports this notion, finding that individuals with higher levels of social interest reported fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The role of lifestyle
Lifestyle, in the Adlerian context, refers to the subjective perceptions and beliefs that shape how an individual interacts with the world. Adlerian therapists aim to explore and challenge these ingrained lifestyle patterns, helping clients to develop more adaptive behaviours. Lifestyle assessment is often used to identify these patterns, which can then be addressed in therapy.
Birth order and family constellation
Adler was one of the first psychologists to emphasise the importance of birth order in personality development. He believed that the position a child holds within the family can significantly impact their feelings of worth and their interpersonal relationships. For example, first-borns may develop a tendency for perfectionism, while youngest children might seek attention and display more social interest.
The striving for superiority
Adler believed that all humans have an innate drive to overcome challenges and strive for superiority. However, this doesn’t mean superiority over others; rather, it’s about becoming the best version of oneself. This striving can become maladaptive if it leads to feelings of inferiority when one’s goals are not met. In such cases, Adlerian therapy aims to realign this striving in a more socially beneficial direction.
The use of early recollections
One unique aspect of Adlerian therapy is the use of early recollections as a diagnostic tool. These are not necessarily factual memories but are subjectively true for the individual. By exploring these early recollections, therapists can gain insights into a client’s lifestyle, their social interest, and their strategies for dealing with life’s challenges.
Goal setting and encouragement
Adlerian therapy is often goal-oriented and places a strong emphasis on encouragement. The therapist and client work together to set achievable goals, which can serve as a motivating factor for change. Encouragement is used to foster a sense of competence and to reduce feelings of inferiority.
The democratic approach
Adlerian therapy is often described as democratic because it values the input of the client. Rather than being a passive recipient of treatment, the client is encouraged to actively participate in the therapeutic process, making choices and taking responsibility for their actions.
The evidence base
While Adlerian therapy is not as empirically supported as some other forms of psychotherapy, there is evidence to suggest its effectiveness. Studies found that Adlerian therapy was effective in treating a range of psychological disorders, particularly when used in combination with other therapeutic approaches.
Adlerian therapy offers a rich framework for understanding human behaviour and facilitating change. Its focus on social interest, lifestyle, and democratic values make it a unique and valuable approach in the field of psychotherapy.
Nicole Willman is a freelance writer specialising in psychology and mental health.