What is Adlerian therapy?

Alfred Adler was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1870. He was once a colleague of Freud; together they founded the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. He eventually split from Freud to develop his own theories, and founded the Society of Individual Psychotherapy in 1912.

Adler stressed the importance of the individual's social context, including dynamics and influences related to equality, parental education, family life, birth order, lifestyle choices, and wider social forces. Adler maintained that an individual's thoughts, feelings and behaviours could only be understood within the context of their life experiences.

Much of Adler's theory is based on the importance of community; he believed that people were in need of and driven to find a sense of belonging and personal significance. Adler believed that when people feel capable, are encouraged and supported, that they will act in co-operative and healthy ways. Similarly, Adler believed that a "misbehaving child is a discouraged child" – individuals who feel insignificant and unvalued will act out in harmful ways. Adlerian therapy therefore emphasises the harmful potential of feelings of inferiority in comparison to others. Adler also believed that people are most at peace when they are working towards social interest, when they feel a sense of being beneficial for society as a whole. A feeling of genuine security can be found through a deep sense of belonging and embeddedness within our social context.

In Adlerian therapy, the therapist and client work on overcoming feelings of inferiority and other identified obstacles. The focus is on finding effective strategies; Adlerian therapy is goal-oriented. 

Four stages of Adlerian therapy

  1. Engagement. During this phase, the therapist and client begin to establish the therapeutic relationship. This relationship has the aim of fostering collaboration to address the client's problems. 
  2. Assessment. During the assessment phase, more information regarding the client's background is explored, including childhood, early memories and family relationships. Similarly to psychodynamic therapy, this phase seeks to understand what styles of thinking and behaviour the client may have developed, why they were developed, and whether or not they are still helpful to them. 
  3. Insight. The therapist offers an interpretation of the client’s situation. This may involve suggesting theories about how past experiences relate to the present – it is, importantly, left to the client to decide whether the insight offered is relevant or helpful. 
  4. Reorientation. Based on the exploration undertaken in the first three stages, the therapist and client work together to develop new strategies to use in daily life.  

Who benefits from Adlerian therapy?

Adlerian therapy can be used to support a wide range of mental health difficulties and is appropriate for anyone who is seeking a goal-oriented approach that takes into account deeper-rooted past issues.

Relevant associations

Adlerian Society UK

Last updated on 10 March 2020