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What Is Adlerian Psychotherapy?

By Tara Barnett
Updated May 17, 2024
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Adlerian psychotherapy is a school of psychotherapy derived from the works of Alfred Adler. One of the defining characteristics of this school of psychotherapy is its focus on the idea of inferiority. Not only does Adlerian psychotherapy propose a unique theory of personality, but it also proposes regular ways of redirecting harmful energies onto more beneficial paths. In many ways, the goal of this type of therapy is not to create an individual who is at peace with his or her many defects, but to help people to become productive and wholesome citizens. This is at odds with many other forms of psychotherapy, in which no type of action or personality is considered harmful if it is internally in balance.

The school of Adlerian psychotherapy is derived from Adler's own beliefs and philosophies about the human mind. Adler was a contemporary of Freud, but he and Freud did not agree about many important issues. One of the most interesting parts of Adler's vision of psychotherapy was his emphasis on community and cooperative contribution as well as how social context affects individual psychology.

A practitioner of Adlerian psychotherapy seeks not only to orient the patient out of self-destruction through inferiority, but also to direct that patient toward productivity, which creates a sense of superiority. Social connectedness and a sense of community are promoted in this school of thought. The form that this connection takes depends on the era in which therapy is being practiced.

Many Adlerian psychotherapists believe that life patterns are set into place during childhood, so issues like birth order and social upbringing are thought to be very important. The way a person views his or her social unit is then expanded to become the way he or she looks at the world at large. When destructive patterns of inferiority are set into place, an individual may become incapable of coping with his or her social situation.

Typical Adlerian psychotherapy takes the form of a Socratic dialogue, meaning that the therapist asks questions to guide the patient to an understanding on his or her own. The focus of this dialogue is in part directed by the therapist, but because it involves participation, the patient also directs the flow of logic in the session. Ideally, patients are competent enough to identify holes in their thought processes and other negative qualities when presented with incontrovertible logical procedures that prove them wrong. This is not a suitable approach when dealing with people with severe psychoses or other debilitating mental illnesses that impair thought.

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