Individual therapy, or Adlerian therapy, is an approach in which a therapist works with a client to identify obstacles and create effective strategies for working towards their goals. Adlerians believe that, by gaining insight into challenges, people can overcome feelings of inferiority. Moreover, Adlerians believe that people are most fulfilled when they are working towards the social interest; that is, when they are doing things that are beneficial for society as a whole.
Four Stages of Adlerian Therapy
In Adler’s approach to therapy, termed individual psychology or Adlerian psychology, therapy progresses through a series of four stages:
- Engagement. The client and therapist begin to establish the therapeutic relationship. The relationship should consist of collaboration towards addressing the client’s problems. The therapist should offer support and encouragement.
- Assessment. The therapist works to learn more about the client’s background, including early memories and family dynamics. In this part of therapy, the therapist attempts to understand how the client may have developed certain styles of thinking that are no longer helpful or adaptive for them.
- Insight. The therapist offers an interpretation of the client’s situation. The therapist suggests theories about how past experiences may have contributed to issues the client is currently experiencing; importantly, the therapist leaves it up to the client to decide whether these theories are accurate and useful.
- Reorientation. The therapist helps the client to develop new strategies that the client can use in daily life.
Feelings of Inferiority
One of Adler’s most well known ideas is that everyone experiences feelings of inferiority (i.e. worries that one is not achieving enough). Among psychologically healthy individuals, these feelings of inferiority encourage the pursuit of goals, providing motivation to strive towards self-improvement. According to Adler, self-improvement naturally leads to positive contribution to society as a whole.
However, some individuals have difficulty coping with feelings of inferiority, which leads them to feel discouraged. Other individuals may cope with feelings of inferiority in unproductive ways, like behaving selfishly in order to feel superior to others. In Adlerian therapy, the therapist works to provide the client the support and encouragement they need in order to cope more effectively with feelings of inferiority and to develop healthy ways of overcoming these feelings.
One of Adler’s other key ideas was the concept of the social interest. According to this idea, people are at their best—their psychologically healthiest and most fulfilled—when they act in ways that benefit society. For example, a person high in social interest might go out of their way to help others, while a person with lower levels of social interest may bully others or act in antisocial ways. Importantly, levels of social interest can change over time. A therapist can help their client increase his or her levels of social interest.
Alfred Adler’s Life and Legacy
Alfred Adler was born in the suburbs outside of Vienna, Austria in 1870. He studied medicine at the University of Vienna, graduating in 1895. After medical school, Adler first worked as an ophthalmologist, but later decided to study psychiatry. He was initially a colleague of Sigmund Freud, with whom he cofounded the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. However, he later split with Freud and went on to develop his own ideas about psychiatry. Adler developed the approach to therapy known as individual psychology, and in 1912, he founded the Society of Individual Psychology.
Today, Adler’s influence can be found in numerous areas of psychology. Many his ideas have found support in the burgeoning field of positive psychology, and his emphasis on the individual’s social context (e.g. family setting and larger culture) is supported in many branches of contemporary psychology.
Adlerian Therapy Key Takeaways
- Adlerian therapy, also known as individual therapy, emphasizes the individual’s ability to bring about positive change in his or her own life.
- Adlerian therapy consists of four stages: engagement, assessment, insight, and reorientation.
- In Adler’s theory, individuals work to overcome feelings of inferiority and to act in ways that benefit the social interest.
- “Adlerian Principles.” Adler University. https://www.adler.edu/page/community-engagement/center-for-adlerian-practice-and-scholarship/history/adlerian-principles
- “Adlerian Therapy.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/adlerian-therapy
- “Alfred Adler.” North American Society of Adlerian Psychology. https://www.alfredadler.org/alfred-adler
- Clark, Arthur J. “What the World Needs More: Social Interest.” Psychology Today Blog (2017, Sep. 4). https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dawn-memories/201709/what-the-world-needs-more-social-interest
- Watts, Richard E. “Adlerian Counseling.” The Handbook of Educational Theories (2013): 459-472. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Richard_Watts8/publication/265161122_Adlerian_counseling
- “What Is an Adlerian?” North American Society of Adlerian Psychology. https://www.alfredadler.org/what-is-an-adlerian