This system of psychotherapy is built on a foundation of viewing all people holistically as individuals.

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Developed by Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler, Adlerian theory is one of the original systems of psychotherapy. It is one of Alfred Adler’s many theories woven into the basic tenets of psychotherapy still used today.

Adler supported revolutionary concepts in his time, such as feminist ideas and equality for People of Color and women.

Additionally, Adler advocated for the uniqueness of individuals, coining the term “individual psychology.” He believed in treating people according to their nuances, rather than pairing diagnostic labels with one-dimensional treatments.

Adler focused on the external and internal processes that might affect the individual, making him different from other psychoanalysts of his time, such as Sigmund Freud.

Adlerian theory is a dynamic approach to psychotherapy focusing on seeing people as unique individuals shaped by their environment, rather than grouping people into impersonal classification systems.

According to Adlerian theory, individual experiences in life are more important than psychological labels or personality types. Understanding certain factors about yourself may help you create a more fulfilling life. These factors include:

Superiority and inferiority complex

One of Adler’s key beliefs was that everyone experiences feeling inferior from time to time, which may cause some people to overcompensate and act out. For example, a child might act out when they feel insecure to gain a parent’s attention.

Self-esteem problems may develop from unresolved feelings of inferiority, which Adler described as the superiority and inferiority complex.

The superiority complex may develop when someone feels they need to prove they are better than others, which may present as behavior and attitudes that are:

  • arrogant
  • pretentious
  • cocky

Individual psychology can help people create meaning and fulfillment in their lives through accomplishing personal goals. The concept of individual psychology was created by Alfred Adler.

Adlerian theory is considered a cornerstone in modern psychotherapy and individual psychology. Therapists apply the Adlerian theory in four stages.

Stage 1: Create a relationship

During the first stage of Adlerian psychotherapy, your therapist works to create a relationship with you built on trust. They may ask questions to get to know you personally and build rapport.

Often, a therapist uses this stage to create an environment of:

  • warmth
  • empathy
  • trust

You and your therapist may make an agreement to work together on specific goals during this stage.

Stage 2: Assessment

Once trust is established, therapy typically moves on to the second stage of Adlerian theory — the assessment phase.

During this phase, your therapist may guide you to discuss common themes of assessment, such as:

  • personal history and lifestyle
  • your relationships and career
  • family history
  • personal beliefs and spirituality
  • early childhood memories
  • recurrent feelings, thoughts, and motives
  • instances of feeling inferior

This technique may help your therapist understand certain patterns you may not necessarily think of as significant.

Stage 3: Insight

It’s typical for a therapist to offer their own interpretations and theories of how your past experiences may have shaped your current circumstances and feelings.

However, it’s considered critical for your therapist to encourage your own assessment of their theories and interpretations. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if they are accurate and helpful.

Stage 4: Reorientation

The fourth and final stage of Adlerian theory is known as the reorientation phase. During this phase, your therapist may build on the insights you find most useful to help you develop new strategies.

Ideally, these strategies can be used in daily life to accomplish your goals. Sometimes, adopting these new strategies can lead to developing new insights about different goals and life situations.

The main goals of Adlerian theory typically involve overcoming feelings of inferiority and increasing social connectedness with others.

The Adlerian theory’s approach to therapy typically includes other goals, such as:

  • understanding your lifestyle, relationships, and past experiences
  • assessing problems or difficulties
  • delivering insights and theories about how your experiences and environment may affect your life
  • creating new strategies for addressing your challenges in daily life

What you can expect

With the Adlerian theory, it’s typical for your therapist to spend time building a relationship with you and creating an environment of warmth and friendliness.

At your first appointment, your therapist may go over common practice policies and information, such as confidentiality. They may ask general questions about yourself and your life to establish a personal rapport based on trust.

After that, it’s common to set goals with your therapist. They may conduct a psychological assessment to better understand your background and experiences.

Over the course of your sessions, you can expect to examine how your early life experiences might have contributed to your overall mental well-being now, especially in light of your current challenges and goals.

It’s common for your therapist to encourage you to draw your own conclusions about whichever theories or insights they offer.

Psychiatrist Alfred Adler’s theories are intertwined into many facets of traditional psychotherapy used today. Adlerian theory is directive, but it also emphasizes warmth in therapeutic relationships to facilitate growth.

Central concepts applied in Adlerian theory include:

  • childhood experiences
  • how a person attaches meaning to their life
  • understanding feelings of inferiority

Adlerian therapy often progresses in four different stages. Each stage is essential for understanding and increasing fulfillment and social connectedness in a person’s life.

Adlerian theory is often used in therapy to treat a number of common mental health conditions. If you are interested in pursuing Adlerian therapy, check out Psych Central’s guide to finding a therapist who may be right for you.