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Dr. Alfred Adler

Alfred Adler

Alfred Adler (February 7 1870 – May 28 1937) was an Austrian medical doctor and psychologist, founder of the school of individual psychology.

Early career

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Psychoanalytic theory

Id, ego, and super-ego
Psychoanalytic interpretation
Psychoanalytic personality factors
Psychosexual development
Psychosocial development

Schools of thought

Freudian Psychoanalytic School
Analytical psychology
Ego psychology
Self psychologyLacanian
Neo-Freudian school
Neopsychoanalytic School
Object relations
The Independent Group
AttachmentEgo psychology


Sigmund FreudCarl Jung
Alfred AdlerAnna Freud
Karen HorneyJacques Lacan
Ronald FairbairnMelanie Klein
Harry Stack Sullivan
Erik EriksonNancy Chodorow

Important works

The Interpretation of Dreams
Four Fundamental Concepts
Beyond the Pleasure Principle


History of psychoanalysis
Psychoanalytic training

In 1901 Adler received a letter from Sigmund Freud inviting him to join an informal discussion group that included Max Kahane, Rudolf Reitler, and Wilhelm Stekel. They met regularly on Wednesday evenings at Freud's home with membership expanding over time. This group was the early inception of the psychoanalytic movement (Mittwochsgesellschaft or the "Wednesday Society"). A long serving member of the group, Adler became President of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society eight years later (1910). He remained a member of the Society until 1911 when he and a group of supporters formally disengaged, the first of the great dissenters from Freudian psychoanalysis (preceding Carl Jung's notorious split in 1914). This departure suited both Freud and Adler since they had grown to dislike each other. During his association with Freud, Adler frequently maintained his own ideas which often diverged from Freud's. It is commonly suggested that Adler was once "a pupil of Freud's", however this suggestion is a myth; they were colleagues. In 1929 Adler showed a reporter with the New York Herald a copy of the faded postcard that Freud had sent him in 1902. He wanted to prove that he had never been a disciple of Freud's but rather that Freud had sought him out to share his ideas. Adler founded the Society of Individual Psychology in 1912 after his break from the psychoanalytic movement. Adler's group initially included some orthodox Nietzschean adherents (who believed that Adler's ideas on power and inferiority were closer to Nietzsche than were Freud's). Their enmity aside, Adler retained a lifelong admiration of Freud's ideas on dreams and credited him for creating a scientific approach to their clinical utilisation (Fiebert, 1997). Nevertheless, even with dream interpretation, Adler had his own theoretical and clinical approach. The primary differences between Adler and Freud centred on Adler's contention that the social realm (exteriority) is as important to psychology as is the internal realm (interiority). The dynamics of power and compensation extend beyond sexuality and the arena of gender and politics are important considerations that go beyond libido. Moreover, Freud did not share Adler's socialist beliefs. Trotsky's biography mentions his having discussions with Alfred Adler in Vienna.

Adler becomes a well known figure in psychiatry

Adler's efforts were halted by World War I, during which he served as a doctor with the Austrian Army. Post-war his influence increased greatly into the 1930s, he established a number of child guidance clinics from 1921 and was a frequent lecturer in Europe and the United States, becoming a visiting professor at Columbia University in 1927. Therapeutically his methods avoided the concentration on adult psychology by attempting to pre-empt future problems in the child by encouraging and promoting social interest and also by avoiding pampering, neglect, and especially corporal punishment. In adults the therapy relied on the exclusion of blame or a superior attitude by the practitioner, the reduction of resistance by raising awareness of individual behaviour and the refusal to become adversarial. Adler was concerned with overcoming the superiority/inferiority dynamic and was one of the first psychotherapists to discard the analytic couch in favour of two chairs whereby the clinician and patient could sit together more or less as equals. Adler's popularity was related to the comparative optimism and comprehensibility of his ideas. He often wrote for the lay public compared to Freud or Jung, whose writings tend to be exclusively academic. Adler always retained a pragmatic approach that was task oriented. He famously commented, "The test of one's behaviour pattern: relationship to society, relationship to one's work, relationship to sex." In these three life task zones one could find the major problems that precipitated psychological consultation.

Emigration and death

In 1932, after most of Adler's Austrian clinics were closed due to his Jewish heritage (regardless of the fact that he had already converted to Christianity), Adler left Austria for a professorship at the Long Island College of Medicine in the USA. His death from a heart attack in Aberdeen, Scotland during a lecture tour in 1937, was a blow to the influence of his ideas although a number of them were taken up by neo-Freudians.

Nonetheless, there exist presently several schools dedicated to carrying on the work of Alfred Adler such as The Adler School of Professional Psychology (Chicago and Vancouver) which was founded as The Alfred Adler Institute of Chicago by Adler's protege Rudolf Dreikurs, and the Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington, dedicated to Adler's original teachings and style of psychotherapy. There are also various organizations promoting Dr. Adler's orientation towards mental and social well-being. These include the International Committee of Adlerian Summer Schools and Institutes (ICASSI) and the North American Society for Adlerian Psychology (NASAP). Other teaching Institutes exist in England, Wales, Canada, Germany, Austria, Greece, Italy, Israel, Switzerland and Latvia.

Basic principles

Adler was influenced by the mental construct ideas of the philosopher Hans Vaihinger ("The Philosophy of As If") and the literature of Dostoyevsky. While still a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society he developed a theory of organic inferiority and compensation that was the prototype for his later turn to phenomenology and the development of his famous concept, the inferiority complex.

Adler was also influenced by the philosophies of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rudolf Virchow and the statesman Jan Smuts (who coined the term "holism"). Adler's School, known as "Individual Psychology" (an arcane reference to the Latin "individuus" meaning indivisibility - a term intended to emphasise holism), is both a social and community psychology as well as a depth psychology. Adler was an early advocate in psychology for prevention and emphasised the training of parents, teachers, social workers and so on in democratic approaches that allow a child to exercise their power through reasoned decision making whilst co-operating with others. He was a social idealist, and was known as a socialist in his early years of association with psychoanalysis (1902-1911). His allegiance to Marxism dissipated over time (he retained Marx's social idealism yet distanced himself from Marx's economic theories). Adler was a very pragmatic man and believed that lay people could make practical use of the insights of psychology. He sought to construct a social movement united under the principles of "Gemeinschaftsgefuehl" (community feeling) and social interest (the practical actions that are exercised for the social good). Adler was also an early supporter of feminism in psychology and the social world believing that feelings of superiority and inferiority were often gendered and expressed symptomatically in characteristic masculine and feminine styles. These styles could form the basis of psychic compensation and lead to mental health difficulties. Adler also spoke of "safeguarding tendencies" and neurotic behaviour long before Anna Freud wrote about the same phenomena in her famous book "The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense".

Adlerians have extensively theorised, discoursed, researched and implemented clinical and social practices based on the following topics:

1. Mental Health Prevention 2. Social Interest and Community Feeling 3. Holism and the Creative Self 4. Fictional Finalism, Teleology, and Goals 5. Psychological and Social Encouragement 6. Inferiority, Superiority and Compensation 7. Life Style/Style of Life 8. Early Recollections (a projective technique) 9. Family Constellation and Birth Order 10. Life Tasks & Social Embeddedness 11. The un/conscious 12. Private Logic & Common Sense (based in part on Kant's "sensus communis" 13. Symptoms and Neurosis 14. Safeguarding Behaviour 15. Guilt and Guilt Feelings 16. Socratic Questioning 17. Dreams and Interpretation 18. Working with Children and Adolescents 19. Democratic approaches to Parenting and Families 20. Adlerian Approaches to Classroom Management 21. Leadership and organisational psychology.

Adlerian psychology has always included both professional and lay adherents. Indeed, Adler felt that all people could make use of the scientific insights garnered by psychology and he welcomed everyone, from decorated academics to those with no formal education to participate in spreading the principles of Adlerian psychology.

Adler's approach to personality

Adler's 1912 book, ber den nervesen Charakter (The Neurotic Character) defines his key ideas. He argued that human personality could be explained teleologically, separate strands dominated by the guiding purpose of the individual's unconscious self ideal to convert feelings of inferiority to superiority (or rather completeness). The desires of the self ideal were countered by social and ethical demands. If the corrective factors were disregarded and the individual over-compensated, then an inferiority complex would occur, fostering the danger of the individual becoming egocentric, power-hungry and aggressive or worse. Common therapeutic tools include the use of humour, historical instances, and paradoxical injunctions.

Psychodynamics and 'teleology'

Adler believed that human psychology is psychodynamic in nature yet unlike Freud's metapsychology, which emphasises instinctual demands, human psychology is guided by goals and fuelled by a yet unknown creative force. Like Freud's instincts, Adler's fictive goals are largely unconscious. These goals have a 'teleological' function. Constructivist Adlerians, influenced by neo-Kantian and Nietzschean ideas, view these 'teleological' goals as "fictions" in the sense that Hans Vaihinger spoke of ("fictio"). Usually there is a fictional final goal which can be deciphered alongside of innumerable sub-goals. The inferiority/superiority dynamic is constantly at work through various forms of compensation and over-compensation. For example, in anorexia nervosa the fictive final goal is to "be perfectly thin" (overcompensation on the basis of a feeling of inferiority). Hence, the fictive final goal can serve a persecutory function that is ever-present in subjectivity (though its trace springs are usually unconscious). The end goal of being 'thin' is fictive however since it can never be subjectively achieved. Teleology also serves another vital function for Adlerians. Chilon's "hora telos" ("see the end, consider the consequences") provides for both healthy and maladaptive psychodynamics.

Constructivism and metaphysics

The metaphysical thread of Adlerian theory does not problematise the notion of teleology since concepts such as eternity (an ungraspable end where time ceases to exist) match the religious aspects that are held in tandem. In contrast, the constructivist Adlerian threads (either humanist/modernist or postmodern in variant) seek to raise insight of the force of unconscious fictions - which carry all of the inevitability of 'fate' - so long as one does not understand them. Here, 'teleology' itself is fictive yet experienced as quite real. This aspect of Adler's theory is somewhat analogous to the principles developed in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and Cognitive Therapy (CT). Both Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck credit Adler as a major precursor to REBT and CT.

As a psychodynamic system, Adlerians excavate the past of a client/patient in order to alter their future and increase integration into community in the here-and-now. The here-and-now aspects are especially relevant to those Adlerians who emphasise humanism and/or existentialism in their approaches.


Metaphysical Adlerians emphasise a spiritual holism in keeping with what Jan Smuts emphasised (Smuts coined the term holism), that is, the spiritual sense of one-ness that holism usually implies (etymology of holism - traced to Holy-ness). Smuts believed that evolution involves a progressive series of lesser wholes integrating into larger ones. Whilst Smuts' text "Holism and Evolution" is thought to be a work of science, it actually attempts to unify evolution with a higher metaphysical principle (holism). The sense of connection and one-ness revered in various religious traditions (e.g. Baha'i, Chrisitanity, Judaism, Islam, etc.) finds a strong complement in Adler's thought.

The pragmatic and materialist aspects to contextualizing members of communities, the construction of communities and the socio-hiostorical-political forces that shape communities matter a great deal when it comes to understanding an individual's psychological make-up and functioning. This aspect of Adlerian psychology holds a high level of synergy with the field of community psychology.

Adlerian psychology, Jung's Analytical Psychology, Gestalt Therapy and Horney's Holistic Psychology are all holistic schools of psychology.


Adler did develop a scheme of the so called personality types. These 'types' are to be taken as provisional or heuristic since Adler did not, in essence, believe in personality types in a reductive sense. Nevertheless, he intended to illustrate patterns that could denote a characteristic governed under the overall style of life:

  • The Getting or Leaning type are those who selfishly take without giving back. These people also tend to be anti-social and have low activity levels.
  • The Avoiding types are those that hate being defeated. They may be successful, but have not taken any risks getting there. They are likely to have low social contact in fear of rejection or defeat in any way.
  • The Ruling or Dominant type strive for power and are willing to manipulate situations and people, anything to get their way. People of this type are also prone to anti-social behavior.
  • The Socially Useful types are those who are very outgoing and very active. They have a lot of social contact and strive to make changes for the good.

Although many of these ideas differed from Freud's in many ways, he did agree with Freud that early childhood experiences are important to development.

On birth order

Many of Adler's theories on individual psychology focus on birth order, referring to the placement of siblings within the family. Adler believed that the firstborn child would be loved and nurtured by the family until the arrival of a second child. This second child would cause the first born to suffer feelings of dethronement, no longer being the center of attention. Adler believed that in a three-child family, the oldest child would be the most likely to suffer from neuroticism and substance addiction. As a result, Adler predicted that this child was the most likely to end up in jail or an asylum. Youngest children would tend to be overindulged, leading to poor social empathy. Consequently, the middle child, who would experience neither dethronement nor overindulgence, was most likely to develop into a successful individual. While Adler argued this viewpoint throughout the early 1900s, he never produced any scientific support for the birth order roles.

On homosexuality

Adler's ideas regarding non heteronormative sexuality and various social forms of deviance have long been controversial. Adler's theory of homosexuality was deeply entrenched in the dominant culture of the time, one that ubiquitously disparaged same sex erotic and romantic relationships. Along with prostitution and criminality, Adler had classified 'homosexuals' as falling among the "failures of life". In 1917, he began his writings on homosexuality with a 52 page brochure and sporadically published more thoughts throughout the rest of his life.

The Dutch psychiatrist Gerard J. M. van den Aardweg underlines how Alfred Adler came to his conclusions for, in 1917, Adler believed that he had established a connection between homosexuality and an inferiority complex towards one's own gender. This point of view differed from Freud's equally problematic contention that homosexuality is rooted in narcissism or Jung's conservative views of inappropriate expressions of contrasexuality vis-a-vis the archetypes of the Anima and Animus.

In contemporary Adlerian thought gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are most certainly not considered within the problematic discourse of the "failures of life". There is evidence that Adler too was, perhaps, moving towards abandoning the hypothesis. Towards the end of Adler's life, in the mid 1930s, his opinion towards homosexuality began to shift. Elizabeth H. McDowell, a New York state family social worker recalls undertaking supervision with Adler on a young man who was "living in sin" with an older man in New York city. Adler asked her, "is he happy, would you say"? "Oh yes", Elizabeth replied. Adler then stated, "Well, why don't we leave him alone" (Manaster, Painter, Deutsch, and Overholt, 1977, pp. 81-82). On reflection, Elizabeth found this comment to contain "profound wisdom". In the 1930s the common attitude and medical opinion was quite unanimous, homosexuality was considered a moral failing and a mental disease. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association de-listed homosexuality as a mental disorder in their diagnostic nomenclature (DSM). In 1998, the Adlerian psychotherapist Christopher Shelley published a volume featuring Freudian, (post) Jungian and Adlerian essays demonstrating affirmative shifts in the depth psychologies in supporting gay and lesbian psychotherapy clients (see: "Contemporary Perspectives on Psychotherapy and Homosexualities", London: Free Association Books).

On Parent education and prevention

(category under construction)

Spirituality, ecology and community

In a late work titled "Social Interest: A Challenge to Mankind" Adler (1938) turns to the subject of metaphysics where he integrates Jan Smuts' evolutionary holism with the idea of teleology and community: "sub specie aeternitatus". Unabashedly, he argues his vision of society: "Social feeling means above all a struggle for a communal form that must be thought of as eternally applicable... when humanity has attained its goal of perfection... an ideal society amongst all mankind, the ultimate fulfilment of evolution." (p. 275). Adler follows this pronouncement with a defense of metaphysics:

"I see no reason to be afraid of metaphysics; it has had a great influence on human life and development. We are not blessed with the possession of absolute truth; on that account we are compelled to form theories for ourselves about our future, about the results of our actions, etc. Our idea of social feeling as the final form of humanity - of an imagined state in which all the problems of life are solved and all our relations to the external world rightly adjusted - is a regulative ideal, a goal that gives our direction. This goal of perfection must bear within it the goal of an ideal community, because all that we value in life, all that endures and continues to endure, is eternally the product of this social feeling." (Adler, 1938, pp. 275-276).

This social feeling for Adler is Gemeinschaftsgefuehl, a community feeling whereby one feels they belong with others and have also developed an ecological connection with nature (plants, animals, the crust of this earth) and the cosmos as a whole, sub specie aeternitatus. Clearly, Adler himself had little problem with adopting a metaphysical and spiritual point of view to support his theories. Yet his overall theoretical yield provides ample room for the dialectical humanist (modernist) and separately the postmodernist to explain the significance of community and ecology through differing lenses (even if Adlerians have not fully considered how deeply divisive and contradictory these three threads of metaphysics, modernism, and post modernism are).

See also


Alfred Adler's key publications were The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology (1927), Understanding Human Nature (1927) and What Life Could Mean to You (1931). In his lifetime, Adler published more than 300 books and articles.

The Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington has recently published the first ten of the twelve-volume set of The Collected Clinical Works of Alfred Adler, covering his writings from 1898-1937. An entirely new translation of Adler's magnum opus, The Neurotic Character, is featured in Volume 1.

  • Volume 1: The Neurotic Character — 1907
  • Volume 2: Journal Articles 1898-1909
  • Volume 3: Journal Articles 1910-1913
  • Volume 4: Journal Articles 1914-1920
  • Volume 5: Journal Articles 1921-1926
  • Volume 6: Journal Articles 1927-1931
  • Volume 7: Journal Articles 1931-1937
  • Volume 8: Lectures to Physicians & Medical Students
  • Volume 9: Case Histories
  • Volume 10: Case Readings & Demonstrations
  • Volume 11: Education for Prevention
  • Volume 12: The General System of Individual Psychology

Other key Adlerian texts

  • Adler, A. (1956). The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler. H. L. Ansbacher and R. R. Ansbacher (Eds.). New York: Harper Torchbooks.
  • Carlson, J., Watts, R. E., & Maniacci, M. (2005). Adlerian Therapy: Theory and Practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Dinkmeyer, D., Jr., & Dreikurs, R. (2000). Encouraging Children to Learn. Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge.
  • Handlbauer, B. (1998). The Freud - Adler controversy. Oxford, UK: Oneworld.
  • Hoffman, E. (1994). The Drive for Self: Alfred Adler and the Founding of Individual Psychology. New York: Addison-Wesley Co.
  • Lehrer, R. (1999). Adler and Nietzsche. In: J. Golomb, W. Santaniello, and R. Lehrer. (Eds.). Nietzsche and Depth Psychology. (pp. 229-246). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Mosak, H. H. & Di Pietro, R. (2005). Early Recollections: Interpretive Method and Application. New York: Routledge.
  • Oberst, U. E. and Stewart, A. E. (2003). Adlerian Psychotherapy: An Advanced Approach to Individual Psychology. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
  • Slavik, S. & Carlson, J. (Eds.). (2005). Readings in the Theory of Individual Psychology. New York: Routledge.


Adler, A. (1938). Social Interest: A Challenge to Mankind. J. Linton and R. Vaughan (Trans.). London: Faber and Faber Ltd.

Fiebert, M. S. (1997). In and out of Freud's shadow: A chronology of Adler's relationship with Freud. "Individual psychology", 53(3), 241-269.

Manaster, G. J., Painter, G., Deutsch, D., & Overholt, B. J. (Eds.). (1977). Alfred Adler: As We Remember Him. Chicago: North American Society of Adlerian Psychology.

English language Adlerian journals

North America:

  • The Journal of Individual Psychology (University of Texas Press)
  • Canadian Journal of Adlerian Psychology (Adlerian Psychology Association of British Columbia)

United Kingdom:

  • Adlerian Yearbook (Adlerian Society, UK)

External links

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