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Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology

by Dr. Zoran Vujisic:  The work of Adler is not easily categorized. It is sometimes listed among the psychodynamic psychologies, sometimes among the humanistic, and sometimes among the cognitive-behavioral. alfred adler psychologistAdler’s ideas are widely used professionally but seldom attributed to the original theoretician (Corsini & Wedding, 2000).

Individual psychology maintains that the overriding motivation in most people is a striving for what Adler somewhat misleadingly termed superiority, i.e., self-realization, completeness, or perfection. This striving for superiority may be frustrated by feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, or incompleteness arising from physical defects, low social status, pampering or neglect during childhood, or other causes encountered in the natural course of life. Individuals can compensate for their feelings of inferiority by developing their skills and abilities, or, less healthily, they may develop an inferiority complex, which comes to dominate their behavior. Each person develops his personality and strives for perfection in his own particular way, in what Adler termed a style of life, or lifestyle.

Actually, until 1929, there was no such thing as a ‘lifestyle’. Adler, who wanted to reclaim free will from the psychological determinism of Freud, created the word and concept. In individual psychology, ‘lifestyle’ is comparable to the psyche or personality. It is what we are, who we are, and what we want to be. Lifestyle develops through four elements:

1) ‘schemas of apperception’, i.e. one’s subjective view of the objective world; 2) ‘self-concept’, who one is and self-worth; 3) ‘self-ideal’, who one would like to be, i.e. the symbolic component of one’s life goal; and, 4) ‘world image’, what one’s relationship with the environment is, and how one believes the world works, including ‘ethical
convictions’, or a personal code of how one and others should behave.

This map determines who one is, as it determines the choices one makes. Out of the raw material imparted by family, the developing person forms the lifestyle, a psychological map of self and the world that becomes the guide for action as individuals strive to overcome feelings of inferiority, and his or her unique way of striving for the goal in his or her particular situation.

Adler was unable to accept that our lives are completely programmed by what happens to us in the first five years of childhood, even though Adler believed that individual’s lifestyle forms in early childhood and is partly determined by what particular inferiority affected him most deeply during his formative years when each individual develops a style of life that greatly influences his behavior. Additionally, Adler believed that this core personality system typically, as it forms early in childhood, strives to protect itself from change in later years, even when the perceived adaptive requirements under which it formed may have changed. Yet he believed that the individual also has the power to choose, to exercise character, and to affect the direction of her/his life.

For Adler, ‘lifestyle’ was the sum total of the values, passions, knowledge, meaningful deeds and eccentricities that constitute the uniqueness of each individual. The lifestyle is essentially the core schema of a person, it affects and is reflected by everything the individual does, thinks, and perceives manifesting itself in all behavior. For Adler, the individual’s lifestyle is one’s personality, the unity of the personality, the individual form of creative opinion about oneself, the problems of life and his whole attitude to life and others. The lifestyle of the individual is considered the key to his behavior.

The person’s major goal is superiority and compensation for his feeling of inferiority, but he may achieve this goal in a great variety of ways. The striving for superiority is based on the human’s ability to be aware of himself, of his ability to remember past experiences and to imagine himself in the future. The individual’s life style is determined by his or her inventive and creative power and is an expression of his /her uniqueness. Each person develops his or her concept of self and of people and of the environment, which surrounds him or her in his or her own unique and personal way. Each person has a specific goal that is all his/her own and make him/her different from any other person. As the individual follows that goal, s/he adapts early in life a specific technique for attaining it.

Adler claimed that each person has a unique style of life, which not only includes the common goal but also how the goal is going to be achieved and the person’s concept of one’s self and the world. Styles of life can be either positive or negative. Adler hated lumping large groups of people into broad categories but felt that describing basic lifestyles would make the concept easier to understand. His types are only intended to be rough estimates of the infinitely large number of personalities.

Adler also proposed that we each have common life tasks to be worked out in the course of normal living. These were the tasks of living in the society of others, the task of work or occupation, and the task of sex or marriage. To these three, Mosak and Dreikurs added the religious task of determining one’s relationship to the ultimate and the task of coping with one’s self (Corey, 1996). We approach meeting these tasks quite differently depending on the lifestyles we have developed.

Therapy becomes a process of encouragement and change of the life-style for Adlerians. It is conceived to progress through four phases. The first phase is that of the establishment of a cooperative relationship with the client. Trust, respect, encouragement and an understanding of therapeutic goals facilitate this. Next follows the phase of analysis and assessment of the lifestyle, in which interview techniques are used to understand how clients see themselves and their world. A frequently used technique is that of ‘early recollections’. It is assumed that our earliest memory or memories give information about our view of ourselves.

The third phase is that of interpretation resulting in insight, wherein the therapist begins to broaden the understanding of the client regarding the way that the person’s lifestyle shapes his or her experience. Finally, in the reorientation phase, counselor and counselee work together to consider alternative attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Adlerian counselors attempt to intervene cognitively and behaviorally to facilitate change.


Adler holds that our basic personality, our uniqueness and how we live our lives, comes from the creative power of the self, to which heredity, environment, conscious, unconscious all contribute. This, of course is not completely true. Man’s struggle cannot be reduced to feelings of inferiority versus superiority, but must be seen in the light of Holy Scripture as a more complex inner and objective struggle involving rebellion against a true and living God and submission to Him. Adler’s rejection of the determinism of Freud and others, however, is indeed more compatible with Christianity.

Other criticisms of Adler tend to involve the issue of whether or not, or to what degree, his theory is scientific. The mainstream of psychology today pretends to be experimentally oriented, which means, among other things, that the concepts a theory uses must be measurable. This in turn means that an experimental orientation prefers physical or behavioral variables.

Adler uses basic concepts that are far from physical and behavioral. How can ‘striving for perfection’, ‘feelings of inferiority’, ‘social interest’ and/or ‘the creativity of a person’s lifestyle’ be measured? The experimental method also makes the basic assumption that all things operate in terms of cause and effect.

Adler would certainly agree that physical things do so, but he would adamantly deny that people do. Instead, he takes the teleological route, that people are ‘determined’ by their ideals, goals, values, and ‘final fictions’. Teleology takes the necessity out of things. A person does not have to respond a certain way to a certain circumstance. A person has choices to make. A person creates his or her own personality or lifestyle. This too is more compatible with Orthodox Christianity.

Even if one is open to the teleological approach, there are criticisms that can be made as to the science of Adler’s theory. Many of the details of his theory are too anecdotal, i.e., are true in particular cases, but do not necessarily have the generality that Adler seems to claim for them. For example, a first child (even broadly defined) does not necessarily feel dethroned, nor does a second child necessarily feel competitive.

However, it could be argued that Adler’s concepts are useful constructs, not absolute truths, and science is just a matter of creating increasingly useful constructs. Possibly, Adler’s altruistic nature and application of his own ‘social interest’ assist in making his ideas practical and effective for limited use by Christian counselors.

His concern for his fellow human beings is reflected in his philanthropic preoccupation with children, families and education. Adler’s logical approach to human issues and common sense language render definition and interpretation generally unnecessary (Corsini & Wedding, 2000).

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