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The Adlerian Approach to Psychotherapy

The Adlerian approach

Alfred Adler was a colleague of Freud’s in Vienna. He became interested in psychology following his observations, as a doctor, that physically healthy patients would often have genuine physical symptoms. After a few years, it became clear that his views were quite different from Freud’s and they went their separate ways.

Theoretical assumptions

Adlerian therapy is an holistic socio-teleological approach. Quite a mouthful (one that will impress your friends at dinner parties), but what does it mean?

  • Holistic: Adler used the term holistic to describe the idea that a person is a person, and not something to take apart and view as a grouping of conflicts.
  • Social: people are part of social groupings and behaviour cannot be understood without considering this context.
  • Teleological: the definition of this is “a system of morality in which the proper choice among tow or more options is based on their practical consequences. Whichever choice has the best (or least worse) outcome is the moral decision”. (Incidentally the antonym is deontological, just in case you were wondering). So, in terms of Adler, this means that all behaviour has a purpose and people are driven towards goals of which they may not be aware. They are also possibly unaware of the logic that helps them determine their goals and the way they pursue them.

Adler believed that people choose how to respond to their inherited qualities and their environment and their concept of themselves and of life provides a guideline called lifestyle and their rules, ideas and beliefs are their private logic. This is created in childhood and contains generalisations and oversimplifications.

Everyone has an innate need to belong to a family, and wider groups but is born in an inferior position so needs to strive to fulfil this need. If the person develops the feeling that they are an equal member of the human race and has a useful part to play and is willing to play it, all is well, but this potential is damaged if the person feels inferior, unsure of their place and unable to contribute.

Adler believed that our attitude to life determines behaviour, we behave as if our perceptions are true, life turns our as we expect and people respond as we expect.

He further believed that mental health is measured by the amount of social interest a person has. He uses the word courage to describe activity plus social interest, therefore a person who is acting with social interest is encouraged. They then have a positive attitude toward the self, self-confidence and self-respect. Therefore the goal of being mentally healthy means belonging as social equals in whichever groups one has to or chooses to belong to.

There are five major life tasks:

  • Occupation
  • Love
  • Friendship
  • Getting on with oneself
  • Relationship to the cosmos

Adler recognised that the problems start when a person feels inferior. They then typically strive to feel superior which is unreal and so they struggle with the life tasks.

Perpetuation of disturbance

People do not develop neuroses if they feel they can function adequately, but they develop as soon as people feel unable to fulfil obligations. This might be in any area of life and the symptoms will be the excuse for not fulfilling them adequately or at all.

Much of the influence begins in childhood with parenting and education. Adler believed that pampering and spoiling were as bad as neglect in terms of preparing children adequately for adulthood and that “mistake-centred” education was discouraging. Also a child’s perception of their family position is critical, and Adler believed that a competitive family atmosphere was unhelpful.

It is important to note that this theory suggests that a person may have no disturbing symptoms even if they have these issues if they have created a lifestyle which accommodates them, ie if their lifestyle is in harmony with their environment. For example, if a child has been pampered and as an adult finds others to continue this role, they may be “ok”, but if that system breaks down then symptoms will occur.

Shaun Brookhouse


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