It’s too bad, but IMHO we don’t ever seem to take enough time to celebrate the ideas and deeds of Alfred Adler. If, by chance, you’re not sure who the heck I’m talking about, then I’ll take that as validation of my point. Who was Alfred Adler? . . . sadly, that’s a question many people can’t answer.
Today, April 4, 2019, I’m doing a webinar on the similarities and distinctions between Alfred Adler’s “Individual Psychology” (aka Adlerian therapy) and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Most people who study these things, including Albert Ellis, recognize that Adler’s work was ahead of his time and much of what he wrote about can be considered foundational to cognitive therapy. Staunch Adlerians sometimes put it more dramatically when they say, “In the beginning, there was Adler.”
Today’s webinar has inspired me to renew my efforts to spread the gospel of Alfred Adler. If you read this blog regularly, you know I’ve done this before. You can read some of my previous Adler posts by clicking here: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/tag/adler/
Today, I feel like I’m taking the lazy way out. But Adler would likely correct me. He didn’t much believe in the word lazy. Instead, Adler would reformulate lazy as discouraged, or more specifically, in this, and many cases (think of your children, perhaps), what appears to be laziness is a function of having goals and aspirations that are beyond one’s reasonable skills and available time. I think that could be the case here. Although I’d like to shower you with lots of new and exciting Adlerian information, instead, I’m posting the first five pages of the Adlerian chapter of our Counseling and Psychotherapy theories textbook. Here it is . . . five pages of the start of a chapter that only begins to describe the life and work of the amazing Alfred Adler.
Chapter 3: Individual Psychology and Adlerian Therapy
We often wonder about Alfred Adler. Who was this man whose theories and approach predate and contribute substantially to ego psychology (Chapter 2), the cognitive therapies (Chapter 8), reality therapy (Chapter 9), feminist therapy (Chapter 10), and constructive perspectives (Chapter 11)? How did he develop—over 100 years ago—influential and diverse ideas that are foundational to so many different approaches to therapy, and so thoroughly infused into contemporary culture? His beliefs were so advanced that he seems an anomaly: He’s like a man from the future who landed in the middle of Freud’s inner circle in Vienna.
Despite the ubiquity of Adler’s ideas, many contemporary mental health professionals don’t recognize, acknowledge, or appreciate his contributions to modern counseling and psychotherapy (Carlson & Englar-Carlson, 2017). Perhaps this is because Adler provided services for working class people, rather than the wealthy elite; or because he was an early feminist; or because his common sense ideas were less “sexy” than Freud’s.
What is Individual Psychology? (. . . and what is Adlerian Therapy?)
Individual psychology was the term Adler used to describe the psychotherapy approach he founded. Watts and Eckstein (2009) recounted Adler’s rationale for choosing the name Individual Psychology: “Adler chose the name individual psychology (from the Latin, individuum, meaning indivisible) for his theoretical approach because he eschewed reductionism” (p. 281).
Most people know individual psychology as Adlerian therapy, the contemporary applied term. Adlerian therapy is described as “a psychoeducational, present/future-oriented, and brief approach” (R. E. Watts & Pietrzak, 2000, p. 22). Similar to psychoanalytic psychotherapy, Adlerian therapy is also insight-oriented. However, therapists can use direct educational strategies to enhance client awareness.
Adler was a contemporary—not a disciple—of Freud. During their time, Adler’s ideas were more popular than Freud’s. Adler’s first psychology book, Understanding Human Nature, sold over 100,000 copies in six months; in comparison, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams sold only 17,000 copies over 10 years (Carlson & Englar-Carlson, 2017). Jon Carlson (2015) referred to Adler as “the originator of positive psychology” (pp. 23-24).
Adler wove cognition into psychotherapy long before Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck officially launched cognitive therapy in the 1950s and 1960s. In the following quotation, Adler (1964; originally published in 1933) easily could be speaking about a cognitive rationale for a computerized virtual reality approach to treating fears and phobias (now growing in popularity in the 21st century):
I am convinced that a person’s behavior springs from his [or her] idea.… As a matter of fact, it has the same effect on one whether a poisonous snake is actually approaching my foot or whether I merely believe it is a poisonous snake. (pp. 19–20)
In his historical overview of the talking cure, Bankart (1997) claimed, “Adler’s influence on the developing fields of psychology and social work was incalculable” (p. 146). This chapter is an exploration of Alfred Adler’s individual psychology and his vast influence on modern counseling and psychotherapy.
Alfred Adler (1870-1937) was the second of six children born to a Jewish family outside Vienna. His older brother was brilliant, outgoing, handsome, and also happened to be named Sigmund. In contrast, Alfred was a sickly child. He suffered from rickets, was twice run over in the street, and experienced a spasm of the glottis. When he was 3 years old, his younger brother died in bed next to him (Mosak, 1972). At age 4, he came down with pneumonia. Later Adler recalled the physician telling his father, “Your boy is lost” (Orgler, 1963, p. 16). Another of Adler’s earliest memories has a sickly, dependent theme:
One of my earliest recollections is of sitting on a bench bandaged up on account of rickets, with my healthy, elder brother sitting opposite me. He could run, jump, and move about quite effortlessly, while for me movement of any sort was a strain and an effort. Everyone went to great pains to help me, and my mother and father did all that was in their power to do. At the time of this recollection, I must have been about two years old. (Bottome, 1939, p. 30)
In contrast to Freud’s childhood experience of being his mother’s favorite, Adler was more encouraged by his father. Despite his son’s clumsy, uncoordinated, and sickly condition, Adler’s father Leopold, a Hungarian Jew, firmly believed in his son’s innate worth. When young Alfred was required to repeat a grade at the same middle school Freud had attended 14 years earlier, Leopold was his strongest supporter. Mosak and Maniacci (1999) articulate Adler’s response to his father’s encouragement:
His mathematics teacher recommended to his father that Adler leave school and apprentice himself as a shoe-maker. Adler’s father objected, and Adler embarked upon bettering his academic skills. Within a relatively short time, he became the best math student in the class. (p. 2)
Adler’s love and aptitude for learning continued to grow; he studied medicine at the University of Vienna. After obtaining his medical degree in ophthalmology in 1895, he met and fell in love with Raissa Timofeyewna Epstein, and married her in 1897. She had the unusual distinction of being an early socialist and feminist. She was good friends with Leon and Natalia Trotsky and she maintained her political interests and activities throughout their marriage (Hoffman, 1994).
Freud and Adler met in 1902. According to Mosak and Maniacci (1999), Adler published a strong defense of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and consequently Freud invited Adler over “on a Wednesday evening” for a discussion of psychological issues. “The Wednesday Night Meetings, as they became known, led to the development of the Psychoanalytic Society” (p. 3).
Adler was his own man with his own ideas before he met Freud. Prior to their meeting he’d published his first book, Healthbook for the Tailor’s Trade (Adler, 1898). In contrast to Freud, much of Adler’s medical practice was with the working poor. Early in his career, he worked extensively with tailors and circus performers.
In February 1911, Adler did the unthinkable (Bankart, 1997). As president of Vienna’s Psychoanalytic Society, he read a highly controversial paper, “The Masculine Protest,” at the group’s monthly meeting. It was at odds with Freudian theory. Instead of focusing on biological and psychological factors and their influence on excessively masculine behaviors in males and females, Adler emphasized culture and socialization (Carlson & Englar-Carlson, 2017). He claimed that women occupied a less privileged social and political position because of social coercion, not physical inferiority. Further, he noted that some women who reacted to this cultural situation by choosing to dress and act like men were suffering, not from penis envy, but from a social-psychological condition he referred to as the masculine protest. The masculine protest involved overvaluing masculinity to the point where it drove men and boys to give up and become passive or to engage in excessive aggressive behavior. In extreme cases, males who suffered from the masculine protest began dressing and acting like girls or women.
The Vienna Psychoanalytic Society members’ response to Adler was dramatic. Bankart (1997) described the scene:
After Adler’s address, the members of the society were in an uproar. There were pointed heckling and shouted abuse. Some were even threatening to come to blows. And then, almost majestically, Freud rose from his seat. He surveyed the room with his penetrating eyes. He told them there was no reason to brawl in the streets like uncivilized hooligans. The choice was simple. Either he or Dr. Adler would remain to guide the future of psychoanalysis. The choice was the members’ to make. He trusted them to do the right thing. (p. 130)
Freud likely anticipated the outcome. The group voted for Freud to lead them. Adler left the building quietly, joined by the Society’s vice president, William Stekel, and five other members. They moved their meeting to a local café and established the Society for Free Psychoanalytic Research. The Society soon changed its name to the Society for Individual Psychology. This group believed that social, familial, and cultural forces are dominant in shaping human behavior. Bankart (1997) summarized their perspective: “Their response to human problems was characteristically ethical and practical—an orientation that stood in dramatic contrast to the biological and theoretical focus of psychoanalysis” (p. 130).
Adler’s break from Freud gives an initial glimpse into his theoretical approach. Adler identified with common people. He was a feminist. These leanings reflect the influences of his upbringing and marriage. They reveal his compassion for the sick, oppressed, and downtrodden. Before examining Adlerian theoretical principles, let’s note what he had to say about gender politics well over 90 years ago:
All our institutions, our traditional attitudes, our laws, our morals, our customs, give evidence of the fact that they are determined and maintained by privileged males for the glory of male domination. (Adler, 1927, p. 123)
Raissa Epstein may have had a few discussions with her husband, exerting substantial influence on his thinking (Santiago-Valles, 2009).
What are your reactions to Adler as a feminist? Do you suppose he became more of a feminist because he married one? Or did he marry a feminist because he already was one?
Adler and his followers have written extensively about the IP’s theoretical principles. Much of what follows is from Adler (1958), Ansbacher and Ansbacher (1956), Mosak and Maniacci (1999), Carlson, Watts, and Maniacci (2006), Sweeney (2009), and Carlson & Englar-Carlson, 2017).
People are Whole and Purposeful
Adler emphasized holism because he believed it was impossible “. . . to understand an individual in parts” (Carlson & Johnson, 2016, p. 225). Instead of dichotomies, he emphasized unity of thinking, feeling, acting, attitudes, values, the conscious mind, the unconscious mind, and all aspects of human functioning. This holistic approach was in direct contrast to Freud’s id, ego, and superego. The idea of an id entity or instinct separately pushing for gratification from inside a person was incompatible with Adler’s holism.
A central proposition of individual psychology is that humans are purposeful or goal-oriented (Sweeney, 2009). We don’t passively act on biological traits or react to the external environment; instead, we behave with purpose. Beyond nurture or nature, there’s another force that influences and directs human behavior; Adler (1935) referred to this as “attitude toward life” (p. 5). Attitude toward life is composed of a delightful combination of human choice and purpose.
Everyday behavior is purposeful. When Adlerian therapists notice maladaptive behavior patterns, they focus on behavioral goals. They don’t aggressively interrogate clients, asking, “Why did you do that?”—but are curious about the behavior’s purpose. Mosak and Maniacci (1999) articulated how Adler’s holism combines with purposeful behavior:
For Adler, the question was neither “How does mind affect body?” nor “How does body affect mind?” but rather “How does the individual use body and mind in the pursuit of goals?” (pp. 73–74).
Rudolph Dreikurs (1948) applied the concept of purposeful striving to children when he identified “the four goals of misbehavior” (see Putting it in Practice 3.1).
Putting it in Practice 3.1
Why Children Misbehave
Adler’s followers applied his principles to everyday situations. Rudolph Dreikurs posited that children are motivated to grow and develop. They’re naturally oriented toward feeling useful and a sense of belonging. However, when children don’t feel useful and don’t feel they belong—less positive goals take over. In his book The Challenge of Parenthood, Dreikurs (1948) identified the four main psychological goals of children’s misbehavior:
- To get attention.
- To get power or control.
- To get revenge.
- To display inadequacy.
Children’s behavior isn’t random. Children want what they want. When we discuss this concept in parenting classes, parents respond with nods of insight. Suddenly they understand that their children have goals toward which they’re striving. When children misbehave in pursuit of psychological goals, parents and caregivers often have emotional reactions.
The boy who’s “bouncing off the walls” is truly experiencing, from his perspective, an attention deficit. Perhaps by running around the house at full speed he’ll get the attention he craves. At least, doing so has worked in the past. His caregiver feels annoyed and gives him attention for misbehavior.
The girl who refuses to get out of bed for school in the morning may be striving for power. She feels bossed around or like she doesn’t belong; her best alternative is to grab power whenever she can. In response, her parents might feel angry and activated—as if they’re in a power struggle with someone who’s not pulling punches.
The boy who slaps his little sister may be seeking revenge. Everybody talks about how cute his sister is, and he’s sick of being ignored, so he takes matters into his own hands. His parents feel scared and threatened; they don’t know if their baby girl is safe.
There’s also the child who has given up. Maybe she wanted attention before, or revenge, or power, but no longer. Now she’s displaying her inadequacy. This isn’t because she IS inadequate, but because she doesn’t feel able to face the Adlerian tasks of life (discussed later). This child is acting out learned helplessness (Seligman, 1975). Her parent or caregiver probably feels anxiety and despair as well. Or, as is often the case, they may pamper her, reinforcing her behavior patterns and self-image of inadequacy and dependence.
Dreikurs’s goals of misbehavior are psychological. Children who misbehave may also be acting on biological needs. Therefore, the first thing for parents to check is whether their child is hungry, tired, sick, or in physical discomfort. After checking these essentials, parents should move on to evaluating the psychological purpose of their child’s behavior.
Social Interest or Gemeinschaftsgefühl
Adler believed that establishing and maintaining healthy social relationships was an ultimate therapy goal. He developed this belief after working with shell-shocked soldiers from World War I (K. Adler, 1994; Carlson & Englar-Carlson, 2017). He became convinced that individualism and feelings of inferiority were destructive; in contrast, he viewed social interest and community feeling as constructive. Another way of thinking about this theoretical principle is to consider humans as naturally interdependent. Lydia Sicher (1991) emphasized this in the title of her classic paper “A Declaration of Interdependence.” When we accept interdependence and develop empathy and concern for others, social relationships prosper.
Adler used the German word, Gemeinschaftsgefühl, to describe what has been translated to mean social interest or community feeling. Carlson and Englar-Carlson (2017) elaborated on the meaning of this uniquely Adlerian concept.
Gemein is “a community of equals,” shafts means “to create or maintain,” and Gefühl is “social feeling.” Taken together, Gemeinschaftsgefühl means a community of equals creating and maintaining social feelings and interests; that is, people working together as equals to better themselves as individuals and as a community” (p. 43, italics in original)
Adlerians encourage clients to behave with social interest (Overholser, 2010). Watts (2000) emphasized that, “The ultimate goal for psychotherapy is the development or enhancement of the client’s social interest” (p. 323). Research has shown that social interest is positively related to spirituality, positive psychology, and health (G. K. Leak, 2006; G. K. Leak & K. C. Leak, 2006; Nikelly, 2005), and inversely related to anger, irritability, depression, and anxiety (Newbauer & Stone, 2010). Some writers consider the positive aspects of religion to be a manifestation of social interest. This was Adler’s position as well (Manaster & Corsini, 1982; Watts, 2000).
Various writers, and Adler himself, noted that Gemeinschaftsgefühl essentially boils down to the edict “love thy neighbor” (Alizadeh, 2012; Watts, 2000). Carlson and Englar-Carlson described it as being the “same as the goal of all true religions” (p. 44). Although Adler wasn’t especially religious, he had no difficulty embracing the concept of love thy neighbor as a social ideal. In contrast, Freud (1930/1961) concluded, “My love is something valuable to me which I ought not to throw away without reflection” (p. 56). This is one of several distinctions between Adler and Freud; for Adler, love is valuable, powerful, and abundant. It should be freely given; for Freud, love is also valuable, but should be conserved.
Striving for Superiority
Adler believed that the basic human motive is the striving for superiority. However, like Gemeinschaftsgefühl, this concept requires a detailed explanation.
The term superiority is an oversimplification. Heinz Ansbacher provided a more comprehensive description of Adler’s striving for superiority in a published interview:
The basic striving, according to Adler, is the striving for Vollkommenheit. The translation of Vollkommenheit is completeness, but it can also be translated as excellence. In English, only the second translation was considered; it was only the striving for excellence. The delimitation of the striving for excellence is the striving for superiority.
Basically, it all comes from the striving for completeness, and there he said that it is all a part of life in general, and that is very true. Even a flower or anything that grows, any form of life, strives to reach its completeness. And perfection is not right, because the being does not strive—one cannot say to be perfect—what is a perfect being? It is striving for completeness and that is very basic and very true. (Dubelle, 1997, p. 6)
Striving for individual superiority can take on a Western, individualistic quality. This wasn’t Adler’s perspective. He viewed excessive striving for self-interest as unhealthy; Adler once claimed he could simplify his entire theory by noting that all neurosis was linked to vanity. Striving for self-interest translates into striving for superiority rather than for social interest (Watts & Eckstein, 2009).
When it comes to basic human nature and potential, Adlerian theory is like Switzerland: Adler was neutral. He didn’t believe in the innate goodness or destructiveness of humans. He believed we are what we make ourselves; we have within us the potential for good and evil.
Striving for superiority is an Adlerian form of self-actualization. More concretely, it occurs when individuals strive for a perceived “plus” in themselves and their lives. Mosak and Maniacci (1999) applied this concept to a clinical situation:
How can self-mutilation move someone toward a plus situation? Once again, that may be a “real” minus, especially in the short-term situation. Long-term, however, that person may receive attention, others may “walk on eggshells” when near that person (so as to not “upset” him or her), and he or she may gain some sense of subjective relief from the act, including a sense of being able to tolerate pain. (p. 23)
Adler observed that people often compensate for their real or perceived inadequacies. Individual inadequacies can be in any domain (e.g., physical, psychological, social). Adler may have believed in compensation partly because he experienced it himself, while growing up. Being inadequate or deficient is motivating. “The fundamental law of life is to overcome one’s deficiencies” (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956, p. 48). Compensation is the effort to improve oneself in areas perceived as weak. The existential philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche expressed the same sentiment, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”
In an ideal situation, individuals strive to (a) overcome their deficiencies, (b) with an attitude of social interest, and (c) to complete or perfect themselves. Watts (2012) has argued that the Adlerian social interest and striving for superiority are foundational to positive psychology—despite the fact that Adler’s work remains largely unacknowledged within the positive psychology discipline.