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What is Adlerian Therapy?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated May 17, 2024
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Adlerian therapy is a variety of psychotherapy based on the work and theories of Alfred Adler. This variety of therapy focuses largely on examining subjects as social beings and looks for both the root of difficulties and possible solutions largely in a patient's style of life and the network of human relationships with which a patient is surrounded. Personal growth in the areas of intellectual development, emotional maturation, and creative fulfillment, particularly in relation to a larger community, is also a key element of Adlerian therapy.

Adler was an early colleague of Sigmund Freud, and the two scholars considered similar issues relating to human fulfillment, functionality, and the division between the conscious and unconscious elements of the human psyche. The two men agreed that the human mind was driven by both conscious and unconscious forces, with the latter often playing the greater role. They differed, however, in their understanding of what forces shape the human character and how those forces can and should be modified as part of therapy. The most critical difference between the two, and the main contribution of Adler to the practice of therapy, was his emphasis on the importance of fairness in social relationships. Adler concluded that human beings are happiest and most creative and productive when they operate within a world of relative equality.

A key element of Adlerian therapy is the identification of the patterns and structures of a patient's social relationships. Adler and his followers urged balance, fairness, and equality in as many of these relationships as possible. They sought to lessen the then quite pronounced division of power in a family between parents and children and were early advocates of more equal relationships between men and women.

The emphasis on equality in Adlerian therapy derives from Adler's view, shaped in part by the active debate over issues related to socialism that was underway during his lifetime, that the experience of inequality would cause individuals to become uncertain of their own capabilities in an unhealthy manner. Such individuals might develop an inferiority complex. This, in turn, could lead them to overcompensate for their own perceived weaknesses in one of several unhealthy ways.

Practitioners of Adlerian therapy will generally examine certain key areas of their patients' lives, in an attempt to identify points of conflict and disharmony. Childhood experience is one such area of concern for most patients. Issues of birth order and of the often glaringly unequal relationship between siblings that often emerge are frequent subjects of inquiry. Adlerian therapy will often also include an examination of work relationships and marriages, with an emphasis on increasing a patient's feelings of being a useful and contributing member of a community, in order to build self-esteem.

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