A Brief Overview of Adlerian Psychology

Alfred Adler (1870-1937) was one of the founding fathers of psychology. He understood people in terms of their relationships – relationships with self, loved ones, work associates, and community members. One of his fundamental beliefs was that individuals have a strong need to ‘belong’, to feel a deep connection to their social network. He also believed that individuals naturally strive toward self-growth, fulfillment, and empowerment. Adler felt that mental and emotional health is achieved when both of these needs – to connect with others and engage in self-improvement – are associated with what he referred to as ‘social interest’, that is, a larger desire to move beyond the self to make a difference in the lives of others, including others who live both within and outside one’s own community.

In the early years, as personality begins to develop, Adler believed the child strives to find a place of significance in their small world, one that typically consists of the child’s family members. He believed the family environment provides an important ‘testing ground’ where children can develop the sorts of behaviors that will prove useful and meaningful in their relationships – both throughout childhood, and also later in their adult lives. However, if this testing ground has failed, or did not exist in the first place, then the child is likely to hold misguided notions about themselves and others. These ‘mistaken beliefs’, as Adler called them, can interfere with the child’s (and, later the adult’s) sense of well-being and self-esteem, and can ultimately undermine the healthy development of the individual’s interpersonal relationships. At this point, many people turn to therapy for help.

One of the primary goals of therapy, from an Adlerian perspective, is to help individuals achieve a deeper understanding of themselves and their relationship patterns, so they can free themselves to experience their lives in a significantly more meaningful and fulfilling way.