What Is Adlerian Theory?

A theory that suggests people need to feel a sense of belonging.

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What Is Adlerian Theory?

Adlerian Theory

Adlerian theory is a holistic approach to psychology that emphasizes the importance of overcoming feelings of inferiority and gaining a sense of belonging in order to achieve success and happiness.

This theory also focuses on the importance of social interactions and community involvement in order to promote individual growth.

This approach to therapy is based on the theories of Alfred Adler, an Austrian psychiatrist and one-time colleague of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. While once part of Freud's psychoanalytic circle, Adler eventually parted from Freud to establish his own theory of psychology, which he referred to as individual psychology.

His approach emphasized each individual's need for connection, belonging, and striving to overcome feelings of inferiority.

Adler's theory also stressed the importance of understanding how individuals are influenced by their social context. This approach suggests that people are driven by a need to feel that they are significant and that they belong. 

This article discusses how Adlerian theory works, how it is used, and its benefits. It also covers some of the things you should consider if you want to try this type of therapy.

Techniques of Adlerian Theory

Adlerian therapy is positive, humanistic, and integrative that can be adapted for the specific needs of the individual. One of the main principles of Adlerian theory is that human behavior is goal-oriented.

People who are experiencing problems work with a therapist to gain insights into their problems and behaviors. Once they have developed a deeper understanding of themselves, people can then work on learning new skills and behaviors that will help them overcome these problems. 

Adlerian theory emphasizes techniques that promote growth and resilience. Some key techniques that are used in this type of therapy include:

  • Providing encouragement: Therapists show that they care for clients by listening and showing empathy. This also involves helping people learn how to recognize their own strengths and gain confidence in their ability to succeed.
  • Creating expectations: Therapists may ask people to consider how they would act if they were already the person that they strive to be. This allows the client to visualize success, overcome resistance to change, and establish the expectation that the individual will succeed. 
  • Examining the purpose for behavior: As people explore their behaviors, a therapist might ask the client to reflect on the purpose of these behaviors. Often, understanding the purpose that some of these maladaptive behaviors serve can help people develop healthier coping strategies.
  • Examining memories: Looking at past moments can serve as a way to gain insight into past patterns of behavior that might contribute to current problems. After exploring several memories, therapists can look for certain themes that may emerge.

Adlerian theory suggests that people are always trying to satisfy certain desires and reach specific goals. How those goals are reached can vary greatly from person to person depending on their personalities and environments.

Recap

Therapists who utilize Adlerian therapy use a variety of techniques to learn more about how people typically behave in order to help them gain insight. Analyzing these behaviors can help people understand patterns that might be holding them back and seek out newer, more effective solutions.

Stages of Adlerian Therapy

Adlerian theory is often used in counseling and psychotherapy. Using this approach, therapists help people develop a better understanding of their goals and motivations. An important goal of this process is to overcome any feelings of inferiority in order to achieve a more fulfilling life. The process takes place over four stages:

Engagement

This stage focuses on establishing a therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the individual in therapy. A therapeutic alliance is a cooperative, collaborative relationship between a therapist and a client. This involves the ability to get along, communicate, share, and work together.

Research suggests that this therapeutic alliance is one of the most important factors affecting the outcome of psychotherapy. An American Psychological Association (APA) task force concluded that the therapeutic alliance mattered more than the type of therapy itself.

Assessment

At this stage, the therapist works to learn more about the individual in therapy. This includes taking a history, learning about past experiences, and using psychological assessments. This often includes exploring early memories, talking about family dynamics, and looking at how the individual thinks about these events.

To learn more about these goals, Adlerian therapists may administer assessments as a way of determining what goals a person is trying to achieve and how they normally go about reaching them.

Insight

This stage focuses on helping the individual learn more about their situation and gain insight into their own behavior. A therapist might offer interpretations of events and suggest that certain patterns may exist. While a therapist might make observations, it is essential for the person in treatment to gain a sense of personal insight into their own beliefs and behaviors.

Reorientation


Now that the individual has acquired new insights, the therapist works with them to develop new habits, behaviors, and skills that will support their growth going forward. This process may involve strategies such as reframing old experiences while also developing new patterns.

Recap

Adlerian therapy occurs in four stages that focus on forming a therapeutic relationship, gathering information, gaining insight, and developing new skills. 

What Adlerian Theory Can Help With

Research suggests that Adlerian therapy can be helpful for treating a number of mental health conditions. Some of the problems this type of therapy may be used to treat include:

  • Adjustment issues
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Substance abuse problems

Applying Adlerian theory to therapy can be helpful for people who are struggling with problems related to low self-esteem, loneliness, or negative thinking. By affirming the individual and rebuilding social relationships, people are able to gain confidence and empowerment that allows them to pursue their goals and make healthy choices.

Benefits of Adlerian Theory

People often find treatments based on Adlerian theory helpful because it emphasizes the importance of community involvement and social interactions in order to promote individual growth.

Because it is a holistic approach, people are able to gain a greater awareness of different aspects of themselves as well as a greater understanding of how they fit in within their social world. 

Another benefit of the Adlerian approach is that it avoids pathologizing people. Instead, it emphasizes how people can experience difficulties and discouragement during life, which then contributes to psychological problems.

Recap

By addressing the feelings of inferiority that play a role in social disconnection, Adlerian therapy helps people regain their sense of self, adjust better to changes, and find the social support they need to thrive.

Effectiveness

Studies have also supported Adler's belief in the importance of the therapeutic relationship. The therapeutic alliance has been shown to affect treatment outcomes across a range of conditions, therapeutic modalities, and contexts.

One study found that an Adlerian group counseling intervention was helpful for improving feelings of authenticity among university students.

Research also suggests that there is neurobiological support for some of Adler's key ideas. For example, one study found that eudemonia, or happiness rooted in meaningfulness, is linked to decreased inflammation and healthier genetic expression.

In other words, a greater sense of social connectedness rooted in caring for others, connecting with the community, and finding a sense of purpose is linked to improved mental health and well-being.

Things to Consider

While the Adlerian approach can be helpful for many people, that doesn't mean that it is the best choice for everyone. Because Adlerian theory focuses on how early memories shape current problems, it involves exploring and confronting memories that can sometimes be painful or upsetting. This can be difficult for some people, so it is important to consider whether you are ready and willing to do a deep dive into your past.

It is also important to remember that being open to change is essential for success. In order to overcome problems, you have to be willing to critically assess how your current behaviors are playing a role in keeping you from reaching your goals. Just identifying them isn’t enough, however. You have to be ready to actively work to change those behavior patterns. 

How to Get Started

If you are interested in this approach to psychotherapy, start by looking for a mental health professional who has training and experience with Adlerian theory. An online therapist directory can be a great tool for finding professionals in your area who practice Adlerian therapy. You might also ask a doctor or healthcare provider for a referral to a therapist in your area.

Spend some time talking to a therapist before you decide if it is the right fit for you. Remember that Adlerian theory suggests that the therapeutic alliance is critical for success, so make sure that you feel comfortable and safe working with your therapist.

Even if you don’t specifically seek out this type of therapy, chances are your treatment may have been influenced by Adlerian theory. Adler’s ideas had an influence on other types of therapy including existential therapy, rational emotive behavior therapy, logotherapy, strategic therapy, family therapy, and person-centered therapy.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.