Unless you’re in my Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories class and studying for your first exam, you probably don’t know much about Alfred Adler. Hence, this post–which happens to simultaneously be part of a study guide for Counseling Theories and part of what we need more of in American discourse.
Adler was a popular psychiatrist in the early 1900s. He was Freud’s contemporary. He wrote about Gemeinschaftsgefühl. But like lots of Adlerian things, Gemeinschaftsgefühl has been overlooked. Adler believed humans were naturally predisposed to work together, cooperatively, in community, with empathy, and positive social feelings. Lydia Sicher, an Adlerian follower, captured his ideas with one of the best professional journal article titles of all time: A Declaration of Interdependence.
Interdependence and Gemeinschaftsgefühl are so natural that, unless we’re broken in some way, we cannot stop ourselves from experiencing empathy; we cannot stop ourselves from helping others in need.
If you know something about Freud, or if you read Chapter 2 of the textbook, you probably recall that Freud was rather competitive. From his conflicts with Janet to his “booting” Adler out of the Psychoanalytic Society, Freud seemed focused on proving himself and holding a dominant position over others. In Freudian psychosexual terms, we might think of this as a fixation at the phallic developmental stage. From an Adlerian perspective, Freud’s behavior represents an excessive striving for superiority. Think about that as you think about contemporary American politics. Might there be an excessive striving for superiority in politics? I often wonder, if you’re already in a position of dominance, why is it necessary to “put down” others as they strive to have their voices heard?
The explanations for this consistent phenomenon across all political parties might be Freudian or they might be Adlerian. Either way, it’s important to learn something about how Adler’s responses to competition and superiority issues were much different than Freud’s. Even as a youth, Adler didn’t obtain gratification from dominating others. Mosak and Maniacci (1999) described a story about what was perhaps Adler’s one and only physical conflict:
Adler became embroiled in a conflict with a classmate, and a fight broke out. Adler struck the boy, and hurt him. He vowed not to fight again (p. 2).
Consider this. It appears Adler won the fight. He hurt the other boy. But instead of obtaining gratification from dominating or hurting someone else and wanting to repeat that behavior, he vowed never to fight again.
I share this story because it captures some of Adler’s theory of individual psychology. Perhaps because he already felt useful and as if he belonged, Adler obtained no additional gratification from having physical power over another. Instead, his aggressive outburst appeared to activate his social interest and compassion. He discovered he did not want to hurt other people. We could all use a little more Adler in our psyches. Not wanting to hurt others would generally be helpful in friendships, romantic relationships, and when conflict occurs. We can always argue and debate over ideas—but how about if we do that with respect and without any intent or motivation to hurt the other person?
In the anecdote about his fight, Adler is clearly not motivated or pulled toward proving his superiority. In another Adler anecdote, his biographer, Phyllis Bottome, described him as “very ordinary.” She wrote:
[He was] a very ordinary 57-year-old man who simply possessed a deep and abiding interest in the lives of ordinary people (Bottome, 1962 #234).
On that note, let’s review the theory and practice of Alfred Adler, an ordinary man who had an interest in ordinary people like you and me.
Theory Review: Dr. John’s Study Tips on Adlerian Theory
Adlerian theory is a little like an iceberg. It’s seems simple and manageable on the surface, but gets more complex as you dive down and try to explore it more completely. As a consequence, I recommend that you stay with the basics; if you decide to go the Adlerian path, there are many ways to explore the theory in greater depth. The following statements about people will help you get in touch with your inner Adlerian—at least for now.
- People are unique (idiographic) whole beings (holistic) who act with a sense of purpose (purposeful behavior). This sense of purpose is there whether the person realizes it or not.
- Part of an Adlerian therapist’s goals is to help clients have insight or become aware of their purposeful behavior. This insight generates motivation. In some cases clients may not be able to become aware of their deeper behavioral purpose. If so, just becoming aware of the behavior and its negative price can be enough to ignite motivation for change.
- Not only is the concept of social interest unique to Adlerian therapy, but the idea that developing social interest, a community feeling or spirit, and having compassion and empathy for others as a therapeutic goal is radical.
- Social interest flows from or is related to Adler’s inferiority concept. Think about it this way: We all feel inferior in some ways. But if we focus too much on our own inferiority, it will almost always lead down the dead end of excessive self-interest in compensating for inferiority (e.g., acting superior) or buckling under to our inferiority feelings and complexes (e.g., chronic low self-esteem or depression). This is why focusing on others—and even on their natural inferiority feelings—can help move clients away from the narcissistic or depressive extremes associated with excessive self-interest.
- Everyone’s overall way of being is highly subjective. Our style of life (or cognitive schema about self, others, and the world) is created or constructed from our subjective experiences. If you have siblings or caretakers and you sit down and talk about shared memories, you may discover you hold differing perceptions of what happened—even though you were all there together!! This is an example of the subjectivity filter that affects our individual experiences (phenomenology) and that then contributes or feeds back into our style of life.
- Therapy is all about fixing our internal, cognitive map (style of life) so it works as perfectly as possible. This requires feedback, awareness, and motivation to fix the distortions in our subjective internal map. The therapist’s role is to guide or assist clients in looking at these distortions (basic mistakes) and making appropriate changes. Therapists explicitly encourage (or give courage to) clients so that clients can feel encouraged (and have courage).
- When clients are encouraged and motivated (because they see the maladaptive nature of parts of their lifestyle), they naturally move forward toward a more complete or perfect self that is able to better face and manage the six Adlerian tasks of life.
This is probably enough Adler for now. But if you’re interested in more, you can find it on a new and exciting website called AdlerPedia: https://www.adlerpedia.org/