Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington

Classical Adlerian Psychotherapy

(Published in The New Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy)

Henry T. Stein, Ph.D., and Martha E. Edwards, Ph.D.

("Adlerian Psychotherapy" is Chapter IV (pages 23-31) in The Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy, Volume 1, edited by Michel Hersen and William H. Sledge. It was published in 2003 by Elsevier Science and may be ordered directly from them or Amazon Books. Adapting to a common structure for all chapters, as well as space limitations, resulted in a highly abbreviated overview. Consequently, the "six phases" of psychotherapy identified in this article represent a simplification of the "twelve stages" described elsewhere on this site. For a more comprehensive exposition, read Classical Adlerian Theory and Practice. Any reproduction of this material must include the chapter title, authors, book title, editors, and publisher. The two-volume Encyclopedia, comprising 1,600 pages, contains 160 articles from 300 contributors, and covers the major psychotherapies currently in practice, as well as the classical approaches that laid the foundation for the various contemporary treatment approaches. In addition, the Encyclopedia identifies the scientific studies conducted on the efficacy of the therapies and reviews the theoretical basis of each therapy. For additional information, and permission to reproduce this document, please e-mail Dr. Stein at or call (360)647-5670.)

Classical Adlerian Psychology, adhering faithfully to the core of Alfred Adler's original theory and style of treatment, has gradually matured into a contemporary, inspiring, creative, depth psychotherapy. The contributions of Lydia Sicher, Alexander Mueller, Kurt Adler, Anthony Bruck, and Sophia de Vries, as well as Abraham Maslow's vision of optimal human functioning, have been integrated into a rich diversity of cognitive, affective, and behavioral treatment techniques. Dr. Stein has added a comprehensive adaptation of the Socratic method and an innovative technique for promoting emotional breakthroughs called "the missing developmental experience." Dr. Edwards is making a significant contribution in the arena of early childhood development.

Outline of Contents

Glossary of Terms
I. Description of Adlerian Treatment
Phase I: Establishing the Relationship
Phase II: Assessment
Phase III: Encouragement and Clarification
Phase IV: Interpretation
Phase V: Life Style Redirection
Phase VI: Meta-Therapy
II. Theoretical Bases
III. Applications and Exclusions
IV. Empirical Studies
V. Case Illustration
VI. Summary

Glossary of Terms

Antithetical Scheme of Apperception: The sharply divided way of interpreting people and situations with an "either/or," "black and white" restriction of qualities; no "grey area" is acknowledged.

Compensation: A tendency to make up for under-development 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, 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.

Eidetic Imagery: Vivid, detailed visualizations of significant figures in a person's life used to yield projective impressions and stimulate emotional responses during the diagnostic phase of therapy. Later in therapy, these visualizations can be modified to promote therapeutic changes.

Feeling of Community (Social Interest): Translated variably from the German, Gemeinschaftsgefühl, as community feeling, social interest, social feeling, and social sense. The concept denotes a recognition and acceptance of the interconnectedness of all people, experienced on affective, cognitive, and behavioral levels. 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.

Feeling or Sense of Inferiority (primary and secondary): The primary feeling of inferiority is the original and normal feeling in the infant and child of smallness, weakness, and dependency. This usually acts as an incentive for development. However, a child may develop an exaggerated feeling of inferiority as a result of physiological difficulties (e.g., difficult temperament) or handicaps, inappropriate parenting (including abuse, neglect, pampering), or cultural 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, 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 extremely deep feeling of inferiority that can lead to pessimistic resignation and an assumed inability to overcome difficulties.

Fictional Final Goal: An imagined, compensatory, self-ideal created to inspire permanent and total relief, in the future, from the primary inferiority feeling. It is often referred to as simply the person's goal.

Missing Developmental Experience: A belated therapeutic substitute for toxic, deficient, or mistaken early family, peer, or school experiences.

Organ Jargon: An organ's eloquent expression of an individual's feelings, emotions, or attitude. Usually an ultra-sensitive organ sends a symbolic message of the individual's distress about a subjectively unfavorable psychological situation.

Private Logic vs. Common Sense: Private logic is the reasoning invented by an individual to stimulate and justify a self-serving style of life. By contrast, common sense represents society's cumulative, consensual reasoning that recognizes the wisdom of mutual benefit.

Psychological Movement: The thinking, feeling, and behavioral motions a person makes in response to a situation or task.

Safeguarding Tendencies: 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 depreciation, 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.

Socratic-Therapeutic Method: An adaptation of the Socratic style of questioning specifically tailored for eliciting and clarifying information, unfolding insight, and promoting change in Classical Adlerian psychotherapy.

Striving for Significance: The basic, common movement of every human being -- 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" as Adler's basic premise .

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. This style is also viewed in the context of the individual's approach to or avoidance of the three tasks of life: other people, work, love and sex.

Tendentious apperception: The subjective bending of experience in the direction of the fictional final goal.

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.

I. Description of Adlerian Treatment


The primary indication of mental health in Adlerian psychotherapy is the person's feeling of community and connectedness with all of life. This sense of embeddedness provides the real key to the individual's genuine feeling of security and happiness. When adequately developed, it leads to feeling of equality, an attitude of cooperative interdependence, and a desire to contribute. Thus, the central goal of psychotherapy is to strengthen this feeling of community.

The major hindrance to a feeling of equality and the development of the feeling of community is an exaggerated inferiority feeling for which the individual attempts to compensate by a fictional final goal of superiority over others. Thus, the therapeutic process is simultaneously focused on three aspects of change. One is the reduction of the painful, exaggerated inferiority feelings to a normal size that can be used to spur growth and development and a healthy striving for significance. A second is the dissolution of the patient's corrosive striving for superiority over others, embodied in a compensatory style of life. A third is the fostering of equality and feeling of community. Underlying this work is a firm belief in the creative power of the individual, to freely make choices and correct them, thus providing an encouraging perspective on responsibility and change.

Adlerian psychotherapy is a creative process in which the therapist invents a new therapy for each client. Six phases of the therapeutic process are described below: (1) establishing the therapeutic relationship, (2) assessment, (3) encouragement and clarification, (4) interpretation, (5) redirection of the life style, and (6) meta-therapy. These are briefly offered with the caveat that for any particular client, the actual therapeutic process may look quite different.

Phase I: Establishing the Therapeutic Relationship

Developing a cooperative working relationship is fundamental for any meaningful therapeutic progress. A warm, caring, empathic bond, established from the very beginning, opens the door for gradual, positive influence. Initially, the client may need to express a great deal of distress with little interruption. In response, the therapist offers genuine warmth, empathy, understanding, and empathy. An atmosphere of hope, reassurance, and encouragement enables the client to develop feeling that things can be different.

The therapist also helps the client learn to participate in a cooperative relationship. The success of the therapy depends on how well the patient and therapist work together, each doing his part, which includes the client's thinking and action between visits.

The relationship with the therapist is a major avenue for significant change. The therapist provides belated parental influence to provide what was missing in the patient's early childhood or to ameliorate toxic early experiences. The therapist helps the patient experience a relationship based on respect, equality, and honesty - for some patients the first they have ever experienced. The therapist also provides a good model of cooperation and caring.

Phase II: Assessment

A thorough assessment is a critical step in Adlerian psychotherapy, as it will guide much of the therapeutic process. While it is generally conducted during the first part of the treatment, information obtained throughout treatment may be used to refine and even correct initial impressions and interpretations. The objective of the assessment process is to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the patient's personality dynamics and the relationship among them, what Adler called the style of life. At a minimum, this analysis includes an identification of the patient's: inferiority feelings, fictional goal, psychological movement, feeling of community, level and radius of activity, scheme of apperception, and the attitude towards the three life tasks..

A central assessment technique that Adler pioneered is the projective use of early memories. These memories -- whether they are "true" or fictional -- embody a person's core beliefs and feelings about self and the world and reflect the core personality dynamics. In addition to these early memories, the therapist uses the following: (1) description of symptoms and difficulties, the circumstances under which they began, and the client's description of what he would do if not plagued with these symptoms; (2) current and past functioning in the domains of love relationships, family, friendships, school, and work; (3) family of origin constellation and dynamics, and extended family patterns, (4) health problems, medication, alcohol, and drug use, (5) previous therapy and attitude toward the therapist; (6) night and day dreams, and (7) information about the larger contexts in which the patient is embedded (e.g., ethnic, religious, class, gender, or racial contexts). While much of this information can be collected in the early therapy sessions, it can also be obtained in writing both to save time as well as to draw upon information from a different mode. When appropriate, intelligence, career, and psychological testing are included.

The therapist uses both cognitive and intuitive processes to integrate this diagnostic information into a unique, vivid, and consistent portrait. This is key to treatment planning and will eventually and gradually be shared with the client. The therapist must always keep in mind, however, that these conclusions are somewhat tentative and are subject to refinement and revision. As the therapist gains more information, it must all fit in with this portrait in a consistent way and, if not, the portrait may need revisions to accommodate this new information.

Phase III: Encouragement and Clarification

An ongoing central thread throughout the entire therapeutic process is encouragement. The therapist cannot give clients courage; they must develop through the gradual conquest of felt difficulties. The therapist can begin this process by acknowledging the courage in what the client has already done, e.g., coming to therapy. Then the therapist and client together can explore small steps that, with a little more courage, the client might take. For many clients, this is equivalent to doing the "felt impossible." During and after these steps, new feelings about efforts and results are acknowledged and discussed.

In attempting to avoid failure, discouraged people often decrease their level and radius of activity. They can become quite passive, wait for others to act, and limit their radius of activity to what is safe or emotionally profitable. If this is true for a patient, the therapist and patient need to find ways to increase the patient's activity level -- to increase initiative and persistence, completion of tasks, improvement of capacities, and enjoyment of progressively vigorous effort. If the activity radius is too narrow, a broadening of interests may provide stimulation, challenge, and more pleasure. In increasing activity level, however, a client may initially move in a problematic direction, e.g., a timid person aggressively tells off his friend. But this is often a necessary first step that can be corrected after commending the attempt.

During this still-early phase of therapy, Socratic questioning is used to clarify the client's core beliefs and feelings about self, others, and life. What follows is a brief example of Socratic questioning in a therapy session with a depressed man who is stuck in his symptoms.

T: You may have a suggestion, you're kind of bright, you know.

C: What makes you think I'm bright?

T: By the way you talk, and the way you answer questions, and the way you do things in general. You're bright. You know how to avoid giving an answer, and how to aggravate people, and you know a lot of things. That's kind of bright. Dumb people don't do that.

C: You think that's a sign of brightness, to aggravate people?

T: Oh, sure! That's a way that you use it. I don't particularly think that people approve of the way you use it, but it is a sign of brightness. You could use the same brightness in a different way, you know?

C: That's true. A lot of people are very annoyed at me.

T: Uh huh. You like that?

C: Sometimes I don't mind. It bothers me when my parents get annoyed at me because then I can't go visit them. And they won't let me visit every week.

T: They won't let you visit every week. Now if I would be very annoying, would you like me to visit you every week?

C: (weakly) I don't think so.

C: No. Sounds as if your parents have a point.

The therapist builds on a strength of the client -- his intelligence. Then she brings out the client's private logic, which could be expressed as, "I can annoy others with impunity." She then tests this private logic by extending it to others, asking whether this logic could also be applied to the therapist annoying the client. Using Socratic questioning to challenge the client's private logic helps him to move closer to common sense.

As the client and therapist talk during these early sessions, the therapist focuses on the psychological movement within the client's expressions and imagines the goal toward which the movements lead. For example, while the client may talk about a conflict with his wife, two possible movements he could actually be describing are away from his wife (withdrawal) or against his wife (aggression). By doing this, the therapist begins to identify the client's immediate and long range hidden goals. He may be trying to protect himself from psychological harm or he may wish to punish her for real or imagined hurts. Frequently the immediate social result is the best clue to discovering a goal. Translating actions, thoughts and feelings into movement and interpreting them in clear, simple, non-technical language provides a useful mirror for the client. Buzz-words, jargon, and typologies do not help as much, frequently obscuring the uniqueness of the clients experience. The therapist uses every-day terminology and even tries to form insight in terms or images that are familiar to the client.

In the therapeutic dialogue, the therapist will also dialectically question the client's antithetical scheme of apperception. The client is likely to resist this process because the scheme of apperception provides certainty and supports the pursuit of the childlike, egocentric, final goal. The client's scheme of apperception depends on cognitive rigidity to generate very strong feelings. It locks the client into a dichotomized, superior/inferior way of seeing the world, evaluating experiences, and relating to others. Thus, to loosen and dissolve the antithetical scheme of apperception, the therapist must help the client see the real and subtly distinguishing qualities of people and experiences rather than dividing impressions into "either-or," rigidly absolute categories.

All behavior is purposive and is aimed at moving toward the final goal. Clients' emotions and symptoms will all serve the goal. The purpose may be hidden and the client may not want to acknowledge responsibility for his intention. Both emotions and symptoms can be used to avoid responsibility for actions or as excuses for not doing what the client really does not want to do. For example, fear, confusion, and anger can all be used as excuses for not developing better relationships with others. The client needs to understand how he uses or abuses emotion. Does he create feelings that help him do the right thing? Does he use strong emotion as an excuse for indulgent and irresponsible action? What emotions does he avoid? Does one client, for example, aggressively ward off tender emotions, while another avoids anger with his "nice guy" approach? What is the impact of the client's emotions on other people? Does he want this result? Emotions are not the cause of behavior, they serve one's intentions.

One of Adler's favorite diagnostic questions was, "If you did not have these symptoms, what would you do?" The answer frequently revealed what responsibility or challenge the person was trying to avoid. Symptoms, like crutches, will be discarded when they are no longer needed. Trying to treat the symptom is like blowing away smoke without extinguishing the fire that causes it.

Phase IV: Interpretation

After the client has made some movements toward change and she and the therapist have examined the meaning of her movements and immediate goals, they eventually engage in an interpretation of the client's style of life. Discussing and recognizing these core personality dynamics like the inferiority feeling or the goal can be both painful and even embarrassing. The interpretation process requires diplomacy, exquisite timing, and sensitivity. Doing this too soon is discouraging. The style of life is interpreted gradually, as the client gains success and strength in a new direction, discovers capacities that she has neglected, and begins to correct what she has omitted in her development. Once she has moved sufficiently in a new direction, the results of her new and old attitudes are then compared.

This insight enables the client to take more initiative to interpret situations more on her own, sharing her own ideas with the therapist. Many clients are tempted to terminate at this point, feeling that they know enough, even though they have not actually applied their insight and changed their main direction in life. However, profound change occurs after the client and therapist have together identified and discussed the client's style of life. Insight and newly found courage are mobilized to approach old difficulties and neglected responsibilities. On the basis of this insight, then, the client can work toward life style redirection, i.e., changing the main direction of movement and approaching the three central tasks of life (community, work, and love).

Phase V: Style of Life Redirection

This phase represents the depth work that is done for the client to redirect the life style. This requires reducing and using inferiority feelings, redirecting the superiority striving, changing the fictional final goal, and increasing the feeling of community.

Clients may have exaggerated inferiority feelings that they want to eliminate totally, believing that if they realize their goal these painful feelings will disappear. A client may use his feeling of inferiority to build a wall in front of him, thereby excusing himself from difficult effort and from risk to his fictional ideal. His depreciation of others, fictional superiority posturings, alcohol, or drugs may temporarily give him some relief from his semi-hidden and dreaded feeling of deficiency. The therapeutic aim is to help the client put an inferiority feeling behind him so that it pushes him ahead. That's the purpose of the normally-sized inferiority feelings -- to motivate development.

If, however, the client's feeling of inferiority is quite exaggerated and seems to immobilize him or thrust him into wildly ambitious plans that are destined for failure, the therapist helps help him change his thinking about his assumed great deficiency.

When the client's inferiority feelings are exaggerated, the superiority striving gets corrupted into striving for superiority over others, rather than for development and growth. Thus, another therapeutic process involves re-directing this striving into a more positive direction -- the conquest of real personal and social difficulties that benefit others rather than the superiority and power over other people.

A thread that runs through the therapy and that underlies efforts to reduce inferiority feelings is the way the therapist promotes the feeling of equality. The offer of equality by the therapist may be a new experience that the client can gradually transfer to other people.

As the client begins to feel more able and less inferior, she may be able to begin changing her fictional final goal. The compensatory, fictional final goal, originally formed to relieve the primary feeling of inferiority, can gradually be modified to a more cooperative form, or dissolved and replaced by a different form of motivation. Abraham Maslow described this higher level of functioning as "growth motivation," in contrast to the lower level of "deficiency motivation." A client makes the choice to abandon his former direction and pursue the new one because it yields a more positive feeling of self and greater appreciation from others. As the goal changes, the rest of the style of life also changes as old feelings, beliefs, and behaviors are no longer required in the new system.

Parallel to the process of reducing inferiority feelings and changing the goal is the process of increasing the feeling of community. Initially, through his contact with the therapist and later through his application of social interest with other people, the client learns the meaning and value of contact, connectedness, belonging, and empathy. Gemeinschaftsgefühl, the original German term, expresses a very profound philosophical perspective about life -- a very deep feeling for the whole of mankind, an attitude of vigorous cooperation and social improvement, and a sense of the interconnectedness of all of life and nature.

Perhaps skeptical of the therapist's good will at first, the client has felt and appreciated the genuine caring and encouragement. The conquering of obstacles has generated courage, pride and a better feeling of self that now leads to a greater cooperation and feeling of community with the therapist. This feeling can, and should, now be extended to connect more with other people, cooperate with them, and contribute significantly to their welfare. As the client's new feeling of community develops, she will become motivated to give her very best to her relationships and her work.

Throughout the therapeutic process -- both before and after the formal interpretation process -- the therapist and client have been working on correcting the client's private logic and dissolving the antithetical scheme of apperception. In addition to these processes, it may be helpful to engage in therapeutic strategies that change the negative imprints from the past.

If the client's early childhood experience was very negative or deficient, it may be helpful to help the client counteract the haunting memories of abuse or neglect with creative, nurturing images. Some people respond to a vivid description and discussion of how they could have been parented. It gives them a picture of what might have happened, how it could have felt, and the outcomes that could have resulted. It may also serve as a model for what the client could do in his or her own parenting.

Other clients prefer the use of guided imagery to change the negative imprints of significant others that weigh heavily on them and often ignite chronic feelings of guilt, fear, and resentment. Still others prefer role-playing both to add missing experiences to their repertoire and to explore and practice new behavior in the safety of the therapist's office.

To provide missing experiences -- e.g., support and encouragement of a parent -- a group setting is recommended. Group members, rather than the therapist, can play the roles of substitute parents or siblings. In this way, a client can engage in healing experiences and those who participate with him can increase their own feeling of community by contributing to the growth of their peers.

The client and therapist can engage in role playing for learning and practicing new behaviors. The therapist can model possible behaviors as well as coaching, encouraging, and giving realistic feedback about probable social consequences of what the client plans to do. This is somewhat equivalent to the function of children's play as they experiment with roles and situations in preparation for growing up.

A final issue of therapeutic change in the Classical Adlerian model is the person of the therapist. Clients constantly observe their therapists and may use them as positive or negative models. How the therapist behaves is critical, as it may interfere with the therapy process if a client sees that his therapist does not embody what she is trying to teach him. Thus, providing an honest example of cooperation and caring is fundamental. It is not enough for a therapist to understand and talk about Adler's ideas; they must also be lived. If a client sees any contradiction between the words, feelings, and actions in the therapist, he has good reason to be skeptical.

Phase VI: Meta-Therapy

A few clients may reach the quest for full personal development. The challenge is to stimulate each of client to become her best self in the service of others, to awaken her inner voice, and to fully use her creative powers. Müller described the last phase of therapy as a "philosophical discourse". For those clients who need and desire this experience, Classical Adlerian psychotherapy offers the psychological tools and philosophical depth to realize their quest.

Maslow labeled this latter aspect of therapy "meta-therapy." He suggested that the fullest development of human potential might require a more philosophical process, one that went beyond the relief of suffering and the correction of mistaken ideas and ways of living. As clients improve, the therapist can help them see that they can use new, more liberating and inspiring guides for their lives. These alternative guides are what Maslow called meta-motivation or higher values -- e.g., truth, beauty, justice. The values that individual clients choose will depend on their unique sensitivities and interests.

II. Theoretical Bases

Classical Adlerian psychotherapy is both similar to and distinctively unique to some contemporary schools of psychology and psychotherapy. In its focus on the importance of the relationship between the client and early childhood significant others, between the client and therapist, and between the client and significant others in his life, it is similar to self psychology and object relations psychotherapies. In its recognition of the embeddedness of the individual within a social context it is similar to social psychology and family systems therapy. In its focus on the subjective meaning the client makes of the world and his relationship to it, it is similar to constructivist theories and cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy.

But several conceptual aspects of Classical Adlerian psychotherapy set it apart from all others. First and foremost is the conception of the creative power of the individual that is directed toward a goal, a fictional future reference point that pulls all movements in the same direction. An Adlerian psychotherapist never asks the question, "What makes the client do that?" The question is always, "What is the client trying to achieve by doing that?" Underlying this teleological approach is a belief in active, free will to creatively move toward a goal of one's own choosing. But once having adopted a fictional final goal, the goal functions unconsciously, out of full awareness. (This concept of fictional final goal is similar to that of a strange attractor in chaos theory, a magnetic end point that pulls on and sets limits for a process.)

This goal also organizes the psychological movements of the person so that there is a unity of the personality. One part of the personality never wars with another; all cooperate together in the service of the goal. What may look like conflict -- e.g., a client is ambivalent about whether to remain monogamous in his marriage or to have an affair -- is really in service of a final goal -- to avoid giving himself completely to one woman. Emotions are also the servants of this goal -- e.g., fear used to avoid, anger used to dominate, punish, or create distance. Dreams reflect this goal, as do daydreams, early recollections, and everyday behaviors. (This concept of unity, where one central theme is reflected in every psychological expression, is similar to the concept in physics of the hologram, wherein each part of a whole is an enfolded image of that whole.)

Another central aspect of Classical Adlerian psychotherapy is the values on which it is based. Adler used to say that if humans didn't learn to cooperate, they would annihilate the world. Thus, therapy encompasses much more than simple relief from symptoms. The goal of therapy is to increase the client's feeling of community so that she can better cooperate with others and make a contribution to the whole of life. Over the course of his theoretical development, Adler moved from viewing humans as simply attempting to compensate for inferiority feelings (what Maslow called "deficiency motivation") to a focus on growth and development (what Maslow called "growth motivation"). Thus, in Classical Adlerian psychotherapy, the aim is to move towards optimal psychological, philosophical, and even spiritual health for the benefit of both self and others.

Unlike traditional psychoanalysis, Classical Adlerian psychotherapy does not utilize transference or counter-transference as cornerstones of treatment. Transference, from an Adlerian perspective, is the tendency of the client to transfer inappropriate positive or negative feelings, originally experienced toward a parent, sibling, or other significant figure from childhood, toward the therapist. Adler considered the client's transference a device to justify and protect the pursuit of the hidden, fictional final goal. Consequently, the therapist diplomatically unveils the transfer of perception and feeling as a long-standing habit that needs to be corrected. In this perspective, transference is a resistance to the cooperation that is necessary between client and therapist. The client usually tries to draw the therapist into a familiar relationship where she can imagine an eventual secret victory.

Counter-transference, the therapist's reactions to the client, are used by the Adlerian therapist as clues to the effect that the client has on others in her life. If, however, the therapist finds that the client triggers his own unfinished personal issues, this should prompt the therapist to deal with these in his study analysis with a senior training analyst.

III. Applications and Exclusions

The strategies of Classical Adlerian psychotherapy are similar in individual, couple, family, and child psychotherapy. The central dynamic is the encouragement of each individual to develop his or her capacities so as to reduce the inferiority feeling, to feel more equal with others, to become more cooperative, and to contribute to the improvement of all relationships for mutual benefit. In order to accomplish this, the style of life of each person usually needs to be redirected. Abbreviated adaptations of Classical Adlerian psychology have also been developed for use in brief therapy, career assessment and guidance, organizational consulting, and child guidance for parents and teachers.

IV. Empirical Studies

As of yet, there have been no empirical studies of Classical Adlerian psychotherapy.

V. Case Illustration

Arthur, a lonely, angry man in his mid 40's was referred to therapy after completing an out-patient alcohol treatment program. He was very frustrated with his career as a criminal investigator, experienced very little intimacy with his wife, and had no friends. Although he conducted extremely thorough investigations that resulted in convictions, sentences rarely included jail time. His cold and isolated childhood left him very bitter: an unhappy mother; a remote father; and a hell-raising older brother whom he hated, but who was the center of the parents' attention and frequently got away with illegal behavior. By contrast, he was a compliant youngest child who didn't make any trouble, and was ignored. His sister, the oldest sibling, acted as a substitute care-taker for the distracted and critical mother.

The felt neglect of his father and lack of love from his mother were at the roots of his inferiority feelings -- a painful sense of being unloved and ignored. Discouraged and pessimistic about gaining affection and attention, his compensatory life style was directed toward catching as many "bad guys" as he could and seeing that they were locked up. Since most were not, in his estimation, adequately punished, he was perpetually frustrated. He also viewed his parents and brother as unpunished criminals. His unconscious goal was to secure compensation and revenge for his miserable childhood. Revenge was not working out to his satisfaction, but at least he could look forward to a comfortable retirement, a symbol of what he felt entitled to.

Initially, his attitude toward the therapist was guarded and minimally expressive. What made him competent in surveillance work, observing others without being seen, was a handicap in making a personal relationship. However, two strengths could be built on. First, he had conquered both alcohol and nicotine dependencies. Second, his intense curiosity about hidden information and details provided a stimulus for examining his own style of life thoroughly through a discussion of the vivid clues embedded in his earliest childhood recollections. The most revealing recollection featured his brother spoiling a family fishing trip by making trouble and then getting away with it. His antithetical scheme of apperception, sharply divided the good guys who obeyed the laws, and the bad guys who broke the laws.

His private logic dictated that the ones who followed the rules were entitled to generous rewards, and the criminals deserved harsh punishment and confinement. Through his work, he dreamed of the ultimate compensation denied his as a child, punishing lots of bad people. Gradually he realized how much his crusade had driven his life, and what he had been missing, as a child and as an adult -- warm, friendly contact with other people. He appreciated the therapist's understanding of his early family situation and empathy for his lonely childhood suffering. Socratically, he became aware of his narrow focus of interest on the people who made trouble, and his exclusion of those who offered affection and caring.

Eventually, he softened enough to respond to healing, eidetic images of warmer, caring "substitute" parents. These images elicited his first experience of crying in therapy. After opening up emotionally and experiencing a gradual series of missing developmental experiences through guided and eidetic imagery, he overcame a socially corrosive depreciation tendency toward wrongdoers, and was willing to re-direct his striving for significance into an interest in promoting understanding and fairness, instead of administering punitive justice. He concluded treatment with a more comfortable, closer relationship with his wife, and an optimistic perspective on making new friends.

VI. Summary

In its most basic of descriptions, Adler conceived of the goal of therapy to help clients connect themselves with fellow men and women on an equal and cooperative footing. Therapist and client simultaneous focus on three therapeutic processes: (1) reducing painful, exaggerated inferiority feelings to a normal size that can be used to spur growth and development and a healthy striving for significance; (2) the redirection of the life style away from a useless and corrosive striving for superiority over others and fictional final goal and toward a more useful and cooperative direction; and (3) the fostering of equality and feeling of community. Thus, not only does therapy benefit the individual but it also contributes to the improvement of life for other people.

Further Reading

Ansbacher, Heinz L. and Ansbacher, Rowena, (Eds.). (1956). The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler. New York: Basic Books.

Davidson, Adele K., (Ed.). (1991). The Collected Works of Lydia Sicher: An Adlerian Perspective. Fort Bragg, CA: QED Press.

Ellenberger, Henri. (1970). The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books.

Hoffman, Edward. (1994). The Drive for Self. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Maslow, Abraham. (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

Müller, Alexander. (1992). You Shall be a Blessing. San Francisco: The Alfred Adler Institute of San Francisco.

Stein, Henry. (1988). Twelve stages of creative Adlerian psychotherapy. Individual Psychology, 44, 138-143.

Stein, Henry. (1990). Classical Adlerian Psychotherapy: A Socratic Approach, Audiotape study program. San Francisco: Alfred Adler Institute of San Francisco.

Stein, Henry. (1991). Adler and Socrates: Similarities and differences. Individual Psychology, 47, 241-246.

Stein, Henry and Edwards, Martha. (1998). Classical Adlerian theory and practice. In Paul Marcus and Alan Rosenberg, (Eds.). Psychoanalytic Versions of the Human Condition: Philosophies of Life and Their Impact on Practice. New York: New York University Press.

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