When investigating the theory of Alfred Adler, it is essential to consider the impact his childhood experiences had on his cognitive development, and consequently his work. Adler’s life in Austria was plagued with traumatic events. These conflicts, along with the multi-cultural surroundings, influenced his conceptual development of social interest. Adler first went into practice as an ophthalmologist, later to become a psychiatrist. For all the Thundercats (1985-89) fans out there, I suppose he graduated to “sight, beyond sight.” At any course, he would eventually link up with Sigmund Freud as a member of a psychoanalytic circle. He began to write psychoanalytical articles for journals; his views emphasized the subjectivity of perception and the importance of social factors more so than biological considerations. He later broke away from Freud’s group, cementing the differences he and Freud held. World War I impacted Adler as well, due to his service obligation, he had a first-hand view that confirmed his socialist perspectives. Adler’s life experiences not only shaped his views of the world but were the crucible for his development of personality and psychotherapeutic theories and practices.
Kurt and Alexandra Adler continued their father’s (Alfred’s) work upon his death in 1937. Though his children continued to make advancements and modifications to the work of their father, many of the influential contributors came prior to their generation. One such influence was Immanuel Kant. Adler developed, from Kant, a desire to aid individuals in acquiring practical knowledge of themselves and others. Hans Vaihinger, another contributor to Adler’s developments, influenced Adler by way of the concept of “factionalism”. Though Freud and Adler separated never to reconcile, Freud had a large impact on Adler’s developments as well. Freud provided Adler with a basic framework that allowed Adler to develop his own ideas. Adler was noted to have given credit to Freud for his emphasis on dreams and the unconscious. However, due to Freud’s popularity in Europe and the United States, Adler was less productive at drawing attention in those places. The American psychiatrist, Rudolf Dreikurs, was a heavy proponent for Adlerian theory. Dreikurs was responsible for many innovations in the application of the theory, with additions such as the concept of multiple therapy and systematic analysis. The influences and contributors to Adlerian therapy have been many. Adlerians today continue to strive to guide the theory in new directions.
As imagined, with so many influences the Adlerian theory is multi-faceted and complex in nature but retains several key concepts. Alder pulled from Vaihinger’s “factionalism” to develop the concept of “fictional goals.” In this concept, fictions are considered to be ideas that are useful tools for individuals to deal with life’s realities. The practice of using attitudes and values as truths aids humans’ interactions with each other on a day-to-day basis. Adler as well as Friedrich Nietzsche (German philosopher) used the concept of “will to power.” Adler took the concept in a different direction than Nietzsche in that Adler described “will to power” as humans attempt to gain competence. Adler entangled the concept with his views on equality, as he opposed socialism by violence.
Adler did extensive study in personality though his views in this area are very broad and open. He focused on the individual as a whole as well as individuals interactions with society. His theory uses the individual’s style of life to evaluate the coping mechanisms they use when faced with adversity. He also breaks social interest into three stages: aptitude, ability and secondary dynamic characteristics. Tied to Adler’s theory of personality are the concepts of inferiority/superiority and birth order. The concepts of therapy and counseling, as pertains to Adlerians, directly affect the impact of goals on treatment. The therapeutic relationship is valued by Adlerians; they believe the goals of the patient and therapist must be synonymous. Adlerians begin assessments at the commencement of the client relationship and continue those evaluations as the relationship builds. During assessment the therapist chooses key timing to integrate interpretations and insight leading the client to a phase of reorientation. Adlerians’ pragmatic approach to psychotherapy can be seen through their interactions with individuals suffering from psychological disorders. Vivid examples of the approach are seen through Adlerians work with depression, eating disorders and borderline disorders. Within these processes, Adlerians assess the disorder and seek to ameliorate the affects the disorder has on the individual. Almost as an ode to Adler, Adlerians believe disorders stem from personality conflicts that occurred early in life. These key concepts of the Adlerian theory have been refined over time and continue to be developed today. The strong framework set by Adler has given current Adlerians a firm foundation that is sure to have an impact on psychotherapy for generations to come.
I credit much of Adler’s success to his trials in childhood. He displayed a strong will and work ethic, which should be revered by all. It is my belief that individuals will be rewarded for their efforts to aid society, despite and in many cases as a result of, the challenges and adversities they may face along the way. Adler had thoughts of his own regarding this subject as he believed individuals have a responsibility to function in society. He surmised all individuals will face challenges, and it is essential that they learn to cope with these challenges and continue to seek success for individual accomplishment as well as societal enrichment. Adler embraced choice and responsibility, which are directly inline with my beliefs. Though certain factors in the early stages of life influence the development of each individual, they retain the responsibility to make ethical decisions. Adler showed respect for human responsibility, individuality and capacity to change. These concepts have essentially been the theme for American society for the past decade, and while we are often so busy trying to get ahead by moving forward, the best explanations may very well be history.
For more about Adler and his work, I suggest Understanding Life: An Introduction to the Psychology of Alfred Adler (paid link), one of the modern translations of Adler’s work by (Adlerian) Colin Brett.