Adlerian Psychology: the logical antithesis to Freudian Psychology

Most lay people have heard of Sigmund Freud and his Psychoanalytical method. It is the quintessential man-on-the-couch method mocked in so many New Yorker cartoons. Adlerian Psychology on the other hand is almost unknown beyond the professional world of Counseling Psychology. However Adler’s concepts are every bit, if not more, a part of mainstream life as are Freud’s theories of the Id, Ego and Super Ego.

“Adler’s style of treatment was warm, gentle, and creative, not cool, aggressive, and systematic,” (

Individual Psychology is the name Alfred Adler gave to his theory of personality and his system of therapy. By individual he meant that the individual is indivisible (the original Latin meaning) which was in contrast to Freud’s division of the personality into segments.

The 5 basic principles of Adlerian Psychology (formulated by Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs) are as follows.

  1. SOCIALLY EMBEDDED: We are social beings who want to “belong” – to find our place in the group. One’s ability to cooperate and to contribute is a measure of one’s social interest. (A measure of health.) A well-adjusted person is oriented to and behaves in line with the needs of the situation.
  2. SELF-DETERMINATING AND CREATIVE (in contrast to mechanistic and deterministic theories): “Life is movement” (Adler). We can change interactions by what we do. We shape our own destiny. We decide what we will do – we are not “victims” of “drives”.
  3. GOAL-DIRECTED (as contrasted with a causal evaluation of behavior): Our behavior is purposive – although we are often unaware of its purpose. We are not pushed by causes, but rather pulled by goals and our own dynamic striving. Causes usually cannot be changed but goals, once they are recognized, offer a choice: One may continue as before (but no longer ”in innocence,” which usually makes it less palatable) or one may change, which is encouraging.
  4. SUBJECTIVE (as opposed to the assumption of absolutes): We give meaning to life. Reality is as we perceive it. “It is not what happens to us, but how we feel about it.” (Dreikurs) We cannot be objective about ourselves and our interpretation of experience. There is not absolute truth for us – reality or truth is how we feel, what it means to us.
    Heredity and environment are not so important as such, but as what they mean to us. A handicapped person may not feel handicapped. (Blindness, for some individuals, is a handicap to be overcome and these people train themselves to become self-sufficient, travel widely and actively participate in life.
    Others use their blindness as an excuse to withdraw from the mainstream of life or demand help and service from others. It is not the fact of blindness per se, but rather the individual’s own interpretation of what his blindness means to him and how he decides to deal with it.
  5. HOLISTIC: A part is never understood by itself. A whole is more than the sum of its parts. Adlerians look for a pattern into which the details will fit. (One can perceive the design of a mosaic at a glance, without counting the pieces.) Thus Adlerians move fast in therapy, by recognizing the “pattern” of the client’s life style.

Adler’s use of everyday language in his writings and teachings influences Adlerian therapists to this day, making the experience of therapy friendly and inviting not imposing and hidden behind a wall of therapeutic jargon.