About Individual Psychology

The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler

Alfred Adler – The Man and His Work

Individual Psychology, (IP), was developed by Alfred Adler (1870-1937). IP is a holistic, humanistic therapeutic approach that views the individual as a social rather than a sexual being, who has the potential for human choice and ultimately change and growth. Adler was a Doctor who graduated from the University of Vienna Medical School in 1895 and practised Psychiatry. A member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, together with Freud and Jung, he rose through its’ ranks to eventually become its President, and the editor of its journal.

However in 1907, after growing disagreement with Freud’s theories, in particular, the heavy emphasis on the role of sexuality in personality formation, Adler and his followers left the Psychoanalytic Society to form their own group and developed Individual Psychology, (IP).

While Alfred Adler’s path diverged from the Freudian mainstream, Adlerian concepts of Convictions/core beliefs, as clarified using childhood Early Recollections and their reorientation, formed the cornerstone of rational-emotive behaviour therapy (REBT), (Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck); the foundation of modern day Cognitive Behavioural therapy (CBT).

Adler died in 1937 in Aberdeen, Scotland, whist on a lecture tour but the use and application of Individual psychology still grows. Today there are more than 100 professional Adlerian organisations and 34 training institutes in the United States, Canada, Europe and the UK. 


Adlerian Counselling

In eight to ten weeks, the client can see how perceptions in childhood affect problems experienced in the present. This is empowering because the client recognises the mistaken notions of the child that are still operating in adulthood, (Convictions/core beliefs). In doing so, the client comes to realise that s/he is no longer a child and with the wisdom gained in adulthood, can choose alternative ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.

There are so many insights that continue to inspire me, that it is hard to begin! Here are the basic cornerstones

The Lifestyle This is essential for self-awareness. If all individuals/couples were aware of their Life Style, their problems would be significantly less!

The Lifestyle is the suitcase we pack for our journey of life filled with things to warn us, console us and remind us of where we want to go. It contains a unique blueprint of beliefs which the child has developed as the result of hypotheses proved in relation to events in childhood. It is made up of the Family Constellation and Early Childhood Recollections which build up the Private Logic of the child. The more flexible the Lifestyle, the more successful the client will be in coping with life’s problems.

The Family Constellation – This is the position the child perceives her/himself to be within the family. It includes the family atmosphere, mottoes and the relationship between child and parents. How the child perceives her/his place has a profound effect on the child’s attitude to life, for me as an example:

The one and only child – A dwarf in the world of giants; self-sufficient and creative, safer amongst adults, expecting to be the centre of attention but no stranger to responsibility.

The youngest, the baby and never dethroned; not always taken seriously, sometimes lacking in self-reliance, can feel less capable than others but spontaneous and a risk taker.

Early Recollections – ERs tell us the convictions/core beliefs and mistaken notions the child has acquired and those still operating for the adult. Once we are aware of these, we can make changes, eg; 

Early Recollection; I am sitting in the back of the car and my Mummy and daddy are arguing.  

The snapshot – the  focal point sitting in the back of the car between Mummy and Daddy

The title – the one in the middle

The emotion – sadness, responsibility, anxiety

Conviction/core beliefs – I can only find my place by being responsible for people care about, making them feel ok, denying my own needs.

I am solely responsible for making relationships work and holding onto those I love. 

This was a revelation for the client who had spent her life rescuing others and taking responsibility for their feelings, denying her own in the process. 

The profound insights of the ERs never cease to amaze me in counselling and turning mistaken notions around can be so empowering for the client.

All behaviour and emotions have a purpose – We are in control of our behaviour and emotions and use them in protecting ourselves in finding our place, we are therefore responsible for our actions. This is such a revelation, the answer to all our problems is indeed within ourselves. This means that we have to take responsibility and can no longer blame our parents… but this is so encouraging because we can actively make choices about where we want to go in life This  is full of hope, we can heal. As a counsellor this is a wonderful therapeutic tool, to ask the client the purpose of their tears or anger. 

Private Logic  Vs Common Sense – Private Logic is the individual’s unique belief system which relates to their Lifestyle and is illogical to the observer. The ‘yes, but’ ‘You could leave your abusive husband’  ‘Yes , but’ I’ve got so much to do in the home.’ As a counsellor, my ears prick up at the sound of the ‘yes but’, it is instant material to work on.

A Unity – The individual is a unique indivisible whole of mind, body and emotions,  living in society, worthy of respect and dignity. This is very empowering for the client, it inspires confidence; the world will never see another me.

Social Beings/Social Interest– We are social beings with the need to belong in a group. If this need is not met as a child, it is difficult to feel a sense of belonging as an adult. As a counsellor I often measure progress by the amount of Social Interest the client is demonstrating – they move from being immersed in their own problems to a healthy investment in others around them.

Creative – The child is born into the middle of a play which the family are in the process of enacting, the child doesn’t know what the story is so far and doesn’t have a script. The child has to write him/herself into the play and create a role to belong. It is often the creativity of the child that the adult has lost and it is wonderful to witness the client who has got back in touch with the creative child.

Striving for significance and compensation– The infant is born into a play in process and being weak, is reliant on others and feels inferior. So s/he strives towards the self chosen goal of significance, protecting her/himself from these feelings of inferiority, creating her unique system of meeting difficulties, the Lifestyle. The more encouragement the child receives, the more confident and significant the adult will feel.

Teleological/striving towards  a goal– We all have a need to belong and as we are born inferior to others in our world, our goal is to protect ourselves in finding our place. We are constantly striving towards this goal and make choices and decisions in the process. 

Adlerian theory and Practice also lends itself to Child Guidance PrinciplesThe STEP Programme provides parenting philosophy and tips; the mistaken goals of childhood misbehaviour and the effect of parenting style on children – a whole other topic for future articles!!