Classical Adlerian psychotherapy

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Classical Adlerian psychotherapy may involve individual psychotherapy, couple therapy, or family therapy, brief or lengthier therapy – but all such approaches follow parallel paths, which are rooted in the individual psychology of Alfred Adler.


Alfred Adler was greatly influenced by early socialism and Freud. This can be seen in his early work and theories. He emphasized that individuals themselves can change their lives. Adler and Freud respected one another; however, Adler did not fully agree or accept Freud's theories. Adler believed childhood experiences have influences on people's current problems, but he also did not believe they are the only contributions. He also emphasizes free will and an inborn drive as contributors to current problems people face. He doesn't believe individuals are victims of their past experiences.[1]


Early in his career, Adler was focused on public health, medical and psychological prevention, and social welfare. Later on he shifted towards children at risk, women's rights, adult education, teacher training, community mental health, family counseling and education, and briefly psychotherapy. Adler started a group: The Group for Free Psychoanalytic Research, which was later changed to Individual Psychology, with individual meaning "indivisible". With this he also founded his own journal. This is when classical Adlerian psychotherapy began. Adler focused on psychoanalysis when he started his own group, even working in his private practice as a psychiatrist, but that did not last long. After World War I he turned to community and social orientation. He was known as a psychoanalyst before World War I. After the war, he was more of a philosopher, social psychologist, and educator.[1]


Adler had many areas of focus, but there are some key components that contributed to classical Adlerian psychotherapy (a.k.a. individual psychology). Children are born with an inborn force, which enables people to make their own decision, and develop their own opinions. He stated that individuals aren't just a product of their situations; they are creators of their situations. A person's feelings, beliefs and behaviors all work together to make each individual unique. Another area of focus on was the concept of fictions. It is believed that fictions are conscious and non-conscious ideas that are not necessarily aligned with reality, but serve as a guide to cope with reality. People create fictions as ways of seeing themselves, others around them and their environments and that people do this to guide their feelings, thoughts, and actions.

Another concept is finality. This is the belief that there is only one organized force, a fictionate final goal. Fictionate final goal has been established in early childhood and is present for the rest of a person's life. It is mostly unconscious and influences behavior. With fictionate final goal, questions are asked more along the lines of "what for" or "where to" instead of "why" or "where from". The goal and purpose of a behavior is looked at instead of finding the cause of a behavior. The final cause of the behavior is the focus, which is where fictionate final goal is termed.

Social interest is another area that contributes to classical Adlerian psychotherapy. He believes individuals are social beings. The way an individual acts with other people is greatly important in terms of their psychological health. Social interest means feeling a part of a family, group or community. An important concept related to social interest is the ability to feel empathy. Showing empathy is a way to connect with others.[1]

A brief history on Alfred Adler[edit]

Alfred Alder

"Alfred Adler was born to a Jewish family on February 7th, 1870 in the outskirts of Vienna. He was the second oldest child of six. He was often sick as a child, and once he became knowledgeable of death, he decided to become a physician some day. Adler's childhood sickness made him appear weak and inferior. A teacher recommended that he quit school to become an apprentice shoemaker. Adler's family objected to this and Alfred eventually went to medical school and graduated from the University of Vienna with his medical degree specializing in ophthalmology. Alfred met his future wife, Raissa Timofeyewna Epstein, in a series of political meetings which revolved around the current rising socialist movement. The two were married in 1897 Adler started a private practice which slowly switched to internal medicine. It was here that he observed that many of his patients had diseases that could be traced to social situation origins. Adler's first publication discussed how the social conditions of where people worked influenced diseases and disease processes."[1]

Adler's psychotherapy[edit]

Adler's therapy involved identifying an individual's private life plan, explaining its self-defeating, useless and predictable aspects, and encouraging a shift of interest towards social and communal goals.[2] Among the specific techniques used were paradoxes, humorous or historical examples, analysis of the self-protective role of symptoms, and reduction of transference by encouraging self-responsibility.[3] Adler also favoured what has been called 'prescribing the symptom' – a form of anti-suggestion aimed at making the client's self-defeating behavior less attractive to them.[4]

Based on a growth model of the mind, Adler's approach aimed at fostering social interest,[5] and reducing repetitive life styles based on archaic private logic.[6] With its emphasis on reasoning with the patient,[7] classical Adlerian therapy has affinities with the later approach of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Classical Adlerian psychotherapy[edit]


Adlerian psychotherapy is unique in the sense that each client has their own individual type of therapy. The therapy, however, is created by the therapist on a six-phase process. The overall goal of the therapy is to establish a relationship between client and community in order not only to challenge the client's unhealthy and unrealistic thoughts of the world, but also to challenge them to replace self-defeating behaviors for ones that will lead to a more positive and healthy lifestyle.[8]

Phase 1[edit]

This stage focuses on support and is broken down into two stages. The first stage emphasizes empathy and relationships. The therapist provides warmth, acceptance, and generate hope while giving reassurance and encouragement to the client. The second stage in this phase is focused on gathering information on the client. Early childhood memories and influences are sought out as well as details that provide information on how the client faces life problems.[8]

Phase 2[edit]

The primary focus in phase two is on encouragement. This is done through two stages of clarification and encouragement. Therapists clarify any vague thinking with Socratic questioning and evaluate the consequences of various actions or ideas. They help the client correct inappropriate ideas about his or her self and others. They also help the client create alternative ways of thinking to move his/her life into a new direction while clarifying feelings.[8]

Phase 3[edit]

Insight is the headline for phase 3. Interpretation and recognition, as well as knowing are the focus of the Insight phase. The client will learn to interpret his/her feelings and goals as well as identify what s/he has avoided in the past. This stage integrates many Freudian ideas such as dreams, daydreams, and recollections. The Knowing stage is where the client is now fully aware of his/her lifestyle and does not require any additional help with this. They know and accept what they need to change.[8]

Phase 4[edit]

The fourth phase is all about change. Change is first addressed through the stage of an Emotional Breakthrough. This can be achieved through the use of role playing, guided imagery and narration. The next stage is Doing Differently. The client will break old patterns and change their attitude. This is achieved through creating steps which are based on abstract ideas. The last stage in this phase is Reinforcement. The therapist will encourage all efforts made by the client to promote change. They will reward and affirm positive feelings and changes while simultaneously evaluating the progress made by the client.[8]

Phase 5[edit]

The final phase is about Challenge. The client goes through a first stage which is characterized by social interest. S/he is instructed to give 100% in all relationships and is encouraged to take risks. S/he is required to extend new feelings of cooperation and empathy to others. Then, through goal redirection, the client is challenged to release his/her old self and open a new self and live by these new values. The last and final stage is focused on support and launching. The therapist will inspire the client to enjoy the unfamiliar, strengthen their feelings of connectedness to others, and to continue self growth.[8][9]

Phase 6[edit]

The Meta-Therapy phase is for clients who have gone through Alder's therapy, readjusted their lives to better suit their goals, and who are making progress in becoming who they want to be. This ending part of the therapy advises clients to find out what aspects of life are truly important to them, and to pursue these "higher values".[8]


The Socratic method is aimed to guide clients to clarify feelings and meanings, gain insight to intentions and consequences and to consider alternative options. Guided imagery helps bring awareness, change and growth. Role playing encourages new behaviors and gives the client practice in how to manage conflict and other challenges.[9]

Contemporary techniques[edit]

There are two main contemporary schools of Adlerian psychotherapy, those following Rudolf Dreikurs, and those calling themselves by contrast classical Adlerians.


Rudolf Dreikurs is a psychiatrist who studied under Adler in Vienna. While Adler's work was very popular and received well by American audiences, it lost popularity after his death. Dreikurs revived Adler psychotherapy after Adler's death.[1]

Building on Adler's writings, Dreikurs conceptualised a four-stage approach to Adlerian psychotherapy:

  1. Establishing the therapeutic relationship.
  2. Assessing the client's life style.
  3. Promoting the client's insight into their fictive goal.
  4. Encouraging clients to broaden their interests from the defensive function of a private logic into a broader sense of community.[10]

Classical Adlerian psychologists[edit]

Adlerian clients are encouraged to overcome their feelings of insecurity, develop deeper feelings of connectedness, and to redirect their striving for significance into more socially beneficial directions. Through a respectful Socratic dialogue,[11] they are challenged to correct mistaken assumptions, attitudes, behaviors and feelings about themselves and the world.

Constant encouragement stimulates clients to attempt what was previously felt as impossible. The growth of confidence, pride, and gratification leads to a greater desire and ability to cooperate.

The ultimate objective of classical Adlerian psychotherapy is to replace exaggerated self-protection (safeguarding), self-enhancement and self-indulgence, with greater self-knowledge and genuine, courageous social feelings.[12]



The basic structure of individual therapy in classical Adlerian psychotherapy is broken down into 5 phases plus a post-therapy follow up, and each phase is broken down into multiple stages, 13 total. Each of these stages has different goals for the client and therapist to accomplish. This is the type of therapy classical Adlerian psychotherapy was designed for.

Teacher-education programs[edit]

Teacher-education programs have been designed to increase child cooperation in classrooms. Teachers, parents, and school administrators attend these programs and learn techniques to increase their own teaching effectiveness in the classroom as well as how to learn to better handle children. These programs are taught in the same manner that marital programs are taught.

Couple-enrichment programs[edit]

Similar to group couple counseling, couple-enrichment programs are conducted by trained professionals and have groups of couples (typically about 10) attend and learn how to improve and enrich their relationships. Many different teaching formats are used that include tools such as role playing, the viewing of videos, and the implementation of other psycho-social exercises. Sessions run for about an hour's time.

Parent and family education programs[edit]

These programs are comparable to classes taught by family life educators. The programs focus on building better family relationships.[1]

Adlerian psychology today[edit]

There are many organizations that write about and still practice this psychology (The North American Society of Aldlerian Psychology (NASAP), The Journal of Individual Psychology, the International Associate of Individual Psychology (IAIP), the International Congress of Adlerian Summer Schools and Institutes (ICASSI), and various other organizations). Many universities around the world offer postgraduate training in Adlerian psychology. This psychotherapy is growing and is steadily and increasingly being assimilated into mainstream psychotherapy.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Primer of Adlerian Psychology: The Analytic – Behavioral – Cognitive Psychology of Alfred Alder, Brunner-Routledge, 1999.
  2. ^ Brian Lake, 'Alfred Adler' in Richard Gregory ed., The Oxford Companion to the Mind (1987) p. 6
  3. ^ Lake, p. 6
  4. ^ Gerald Corey, Theory and Practice of Counselling and Psychotherapy (1991) p. 155
  5. ^ U. E. Oberst/A. E. Stuart, Adlerian Psychotherapy (2003) p. 37 and p. 47
  6. ^ Alfred Adler, Understanding Human Nature (1992) p. 231
  7. ^ Eric Berne, A Layman's Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (1976) p. 278
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy, San Diego, 2002.
  9. ^ a b Stages of Classical Adlerian Psychology, additional text.
  10. ^ U. E. Oberst/A. E. Stuart, Adlerian Psychotherapy (2003) p. 49
  11. ^ Henry T. Stein, 'Stages of Classical Adlerian Psychotherapy'
  12. ^ Adler, p. 139-42


  • Marty Sapp, 'Adlerian Psychotherapy', in Cognitive-Behavioral Theories of Counselling (2004) Chapter 3.

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