Classical Adlerian psychology

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Classical Adlerian psychology is the system of psychology set up and developed by Alfred Adler under the title of Individual psychology after his break with Sigmund Freud.[1]

It is also a contemporary Adlerian movement claiming (in quasi-polemical fashion) to preserve the genuine values of Adler's work in the present age.[2]

Classical Adlerian psychology today

The contemporary movement describes itself as a values-based, fully integrated theory of personality, model of psychopathology, philosophy of living, strategy for preventative education, and technique of psychotherapy, involving both depth psychology and an appreciation of practical, democratic principles in daily life.[3] Its mission is to encourage the development of psychologically healthy and cooperative individuals, couples, and families in order to effectively pursue the ideals of social equality and democratic living.

Origins and development

With a solid foundation in the original teachings and therapeutic style of Alfred Adler, the movement today integrates several resources: the contributions of Kurt Adler, Alexander Müller, Lydia Sicher, Sophia de Vries, and Anthony Bruck; the self-actualization research of Abraham Maslow, himself mentored by Adler;[4] and the creative innovations of Henry Stein.[5]

Adler's Theory of personality

Primary and secondary feelings of inferiority

The primary feeling of inferiority is the original and normal feeling in the infant and child of smallness, weakness, and dependency: appreciation of this fact was a fundamental element in Adler's thinking, and an important part of his break with Sigmund Freud.[6] An inferiority feeling usually acts as an incentive for development. However, a child may develop an exaggerated feeling of inferiority as a result of physiological difficulties or handicaps, inappropriate parenting (including abuse, neglect, over-pampering), or cultural and/or economic obstacles.

The secondary inferiority feeling is the adult's feeling of insufficiency that results from having adopted an unrealistically high or impossible compensatory goal, often one of perfection. The degree of distress is proportional to the subjective or felt distance from that goal. In addition to this distress, the residue of the original, primary feeling of inferiority may still haunt an adult. An inferiority complex is an extreme expectation that one will fail in the tasks of life that can lead to pessimistic resignation and an assumed inability to overcome difficulties.

Striving for significance

The basic, common movement of every human being is, from birth until death, of overcoming, expansion, growth, completion, and security. This may take a negative turn into a striving for superiority or power over other people. Unfortunately, many reference works mistakenly refer only to the negative "striving for power"[7] as Adler's basic premise.


A tendency to make up for underdevelopment of physical or mental functioning through interest and training, usually within a relatively normal range of development. Over-compensation reflects a more powerful impulse to gain an extra margin of development, frequently beyond the normal range. This may take a useful direction toward exceptional achievement, as the stutterer Demosthenes became an outstanding orator,[8] or a useless direction toward excessive perfectionism. Genius may result from extraordinary over-compensation. Under-compensation reflects a less active, even passive attitude toward development that usually places excessive expectations and demands on other people.

Feeling of community

Translated variably from the German, Gemeinschaftsgefuehl can mean community feeling, social interest, social feeling or social sense. Feeling of community is a recognition and acceptance of the interconnectedness of all people, experienced on affective, cognitive, and behavioral levels; and was increasingly emphasised in Adler's later writings [9]

At the affective level, it is experienced as a deep feeling of belonging to the human race and empathy with fellow men and women. At the cognitive level, it is experienced as a recognition of interdependence with others, i.e., that the welfare of any one individual ultimately depends on the welfare of everyone. At the behavioral level, these thoughts and feelings can then be translated into actions aimed at self-development as well as cooperative and helpful movements directed toward others. Thus, at its heart the concept of "feeling of community" encompasses individuals' full development of their capacities, a process that is both personally fulfilling and results in people who have something worthwhile to contribute to one another.

Style of life

A concept reflecting the organization of the personality, including the meaning individuals give to the world and to themselves, their fictional final goal, and the affective, cognitive, and behavioral strategies they employ to reach the goal: it may be normal or neurotic.[10] This style is also viewed in the context of the individual's approach to or avoidance of the four tasks of life: other people, work, love and sex.

Fictional final goal

Classical Adlerian Psychology assumes a central personality dynamic reflecting the growth and forward movement of life, reflecting the influence on Adler of Vaihinger's concept of fictions.[11] It is a future-oriented striving toward an ideal goal of significance, superiority, success or completion: what Adler himself called "an attempt at a planned final compensation and a (secret) life plan".[12]

The early childhood feeling of inferiority, for which one aims to compensate, leads to the creation of a fictional final goal which subjectively seems to promise total relief from the feeling of inferiority, future security, and success. The depth of the inferior feeling usually determines the height of the goal which then becomes the "final cause" of behavior patterns.

Unity of the personality

The position that all of the cognitive, affective, and behavioral facets of the individual are viewed as components of an integrated whole, moving in one psychological direction, without internal contradictions or conflicts. Gerald Corey (2012) stated in his book, Theory and Practice of unseling and Psychotherapy, Personality can only be understood holistically/systemically. The individual is an indivisible whole, born, reared, and living in specific familial, social, and cultural contexts.[13] In a recent interview with the Journal of Individual Psychology, Jane Griffith said, "The holistic character of thought is in Adler's choice of the term Individual Psychology. It's one word in German, Individualpsychologie: indivisible. Not to be chopped into bits. Adler also thought that not only is the individual not to be divided up, he's not to be seen as apart from his context either. He said that you can't examine an isolated individual."[14]

Private logic (vs. common sense)

Private logic is the reasoning invented by an individual to stimulate and justify a style of life. By contrast, common sense represents society's cumulative, consensual reasoning that recognizes the wisdom of mutual benefit. Harold Mosak in 1995 described Five Basic Mistakes:[15]

  • Overgeneralizations
  • False or Impossible Goals
  • Misperceptions of Life and Life's Demands
  • Denial of One's Basic Worth
  • Faulty Values

Safeguarding tendency

Cognitive and behavioral strategies used to avoid or excuse oneself from imagined failure. They can take the form of symptoms—such as anxiety, phobias, or depression—which can all be used as excuses for avoiding the tasks of life and transferring responsibility to others. They can also take the form of aggression or withdrawal. Aggressive safeguarding strategies include deprecation, accusations, or self-accusations and guilt, which are used as means for elevating a fragile self-esteem and safeguarding an overblown, idealized image of oneself. Withdrawal takes various forms of physical, mental, and emotional distancing from seemingly threatening people and problems.

Psychology of use (vs. possession)

The perspective that an individual uses his thinking, feeling, and actions (even his symptoms) to achieve a social end. He does not merely inherit or possess certain qualities, traits, or attitudes, but adopts only those characteristics that serve his goal, and rejects those that do not fit his intentions. This assumption emphasizes personal responsibility for one's character.

Adlerian debate

There is a debate among contemporary Adlerians over the relative roles of belongingness and superiority in determining character, the school associated with Rudolf Dreikurs emphasising the former, as opposed to the classical Adlerian theorists.[16]

See also



  1. Eric Berne, A Layman's Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (1976) p. 277-8
  2. 'Classical Adlerian Individual Psychology: Alfred Adler's Original Approach'
  3. 'Adlerian psychology'
  4. U. E. Oberst/A. E. Stuart, Adlerian Psychotherapy (2003) p. 130-1
  5. 'Classical Adlerian Individual Psychology: Alfred Adler's Original Approach'
  6. 'Inferiority Complex', in Richard Gregory ed., The Oxford Companion to the Mind (1987) p. 368
  7. Compare e.g. Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1964) p. 400
  8. Brian Lake, 'Adler, Alfred', in Gregory ed., p. 5
  9. A. Adler et al, Superiority and Social Interest: A Collection of Later Writings (1964) p. 38
  10. Lake, p. 6
  11. Lake, p. 6
  12. Adler, quoted in Eric Berne, What Do You Say After You Say Hello? (1974) p. 58
  13. Corey, Gerald (2012). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Cengage. p. 105.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Rasmussen, P. R.,; Watkins, K. L. (2012). "Advice from the Masters II: A Conversation with Robert L. Powers and Jane Griffith". Journal of Individual Psychology. 68 (2): 112–135.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Corey, Gerald (2012). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Cengage Learning. p. 105.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Paul R. Rasmussen, The Quest to Feel Good (2010) p. 44

Further reading

Alfred Adler, Individual Psychology (1929)

R. R. and H. L. Ansbacher, The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler (1956)

Henri Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970)

External links