Adlerian therapy, also called individual psychology, is a short-term, goal-oriented, and positive psychodynamic therapy based on the theories of Alfred Adler—a one-time colleague of Sigmund Freud. Adler focused much of his research on feelings of inferiority versus superiority, discouragement, and a sense of belonging in the context of one’s community and society at large. According to Adler, feelings of inferiority can result in neurotic behavior but, in the right setting, can also be used as motivation to strive for greater success. Adlerian therapy focuses on the development of individual personality while understanding and accepting the interconnectedness of all humans.
Alfred Adler was born near Vienna, Austria in 1870. He studied medicine and became a doctor, first practicing ophthalmology before shifting into general medicine treating different populations. In the early 1900s, Adler met regularly with Sigmund Feud as he began to develop psychoanalysis. Yet Adler soon parted ways with Freud to begin his own branch of therapy, which would become Adlerian therapy or individual psychology. He developed the approach, met with patients, and spoke about his methods until his death in 1937.
Adlerian therapy is an evidence-based approach that can be applied successfully in the treatment of any type of psychological disorder or mental illness. Adlerian therapy may be used in conjunction with other therapeutic approaches such as play therapy, art therapy, and culturally sensitive counseling, as it best suits the needs of the individuals involved. An Adlerian approach can be employed with children, adolescents, adults, individuals, couples, families, or other groups.
Adlerian therapy proceeds in four stages:
Engagement involves developing the relationship between patient and therapist. This therapist is supportive, encouraging, and empathetic, which helps to forge a collaborative partnership. The pair works together to address the patient’s difficulties.
Assessment involves learning about the patient’s past to understand their present challenges. Adlerian therapy emphasizes the influence of birth order and early childhood memories, but the therapist may also seek to understand the patient’s family dynamics, important past experiences, and the nature and origins of various patterns of thought.
After learning more about the patient, insight involves uncovering why the patient acts the way they do and helping the patient to see themselves and their circumstances differently. The therapist asks questions to explore the patient’s perspective and guides them toward greater awareness and understanding. The therapist may offer their own interpretations about how the patient’s past may inform their present, and what may be causing unhelpful or dysfunctional tendencies.
Reorientation involves change. The therapist helps the patient develop new ways of thinking and active strategies to use outside of therapy that encourage more flexible and adaptive ways of thinking and that reinforce the new insights gained in session.
Overall, the focus is on reframing the attitudes, beliefs, and lifestyle choices that block success, so that patients are more effective at reaching their desired goals.
One of the core tenets of Adlerian therapy is that individual behavior must be explored within the context of a client’s sense of “fitting in” with their community, and society at large. In some cases, this extends to birth order and how one’s role within the family affects the development of one’s personality and future relationships. Adlerian therapists often work in schools, clinics, corporations, and other community settings, helping to create learning environments that provide a sense of belonging and respect for all. These therapists work especially with those people who are most in need of positive, future-oriented counseling and encouragement.
An Adlerian therapist is a licensed psychotherapist with a Master’s degree or doctorate and specialized training or experience in an Adlerian approach. The North American Society of Adlerian Psychology and other academic institutions offer certificates and degree programs in Adlerian counseling and psychotherapy. When you speak to the potential therapist, ask if he or she takes an Adlerian approach to treatment. Once it is established that a therapist has the credentials and experience you are looking for, it is important to make sure you are comfortable working with that person. Note that other professionals, such as doctors, nurses, teachers, and counselors, may also incorporate Adlerian principles into their work.