Alfred Adler Biography: Career and Life

Theory and Application

Alfred Adler Biography: Career and Life

Alfred Adler (1870-1937), world renowned philosopher and psychiatrist, stressed the need to understand individuals within their social context.

During the early 1900's, Adler began addressing such crucial and contemporary issues as equality, parent education, the influence of birth order, life style, and the holism of individuals.

Adler believed that we all have one basic desire and goal: to belong and to feel significant.

Adler developed the first holistic theory of personality, psychopathology, and psychotherapy that was intimately connected to a humanistic philosophy of living.

His lectures and books for the general public are characterized by a crystal clear common sense.

His clinical books and journal articles reveal an uncommon understanding of mental disorders, a deep insight into the art of healing, and a great inspiration for encouraging optimal human development.

According to Adler, when we feel encouraged, we feel capable and appreciated and will generally act in a connected and cooperative way. When we are discouraged, we may act in unhealthy ways by competing, withdrawing, or giving up. It is in finding ways of expressing and accepting encouragement, respect, and social interest that help us feel fulfilled and optimistic.

Adlerian theory and practice have proven especially productive as applied to the growth and development of children. Adlerians believe that «a misbehaving child is a discouraged child» and that helping children to feel valued, significant, and competent is often the most effective strategy in coping with difficult child behaviors.

Adlerian Psychology focuses on people's efforts to compensate for their self-perceived inferiority to others. These feelings of inferiority may derive from one's position in the family constellation, particularly if early experiences of humiliation occurred; a specific physical condition or defect existed; or a general lack of social feeling for others was present.

Adlerians are concerned with understanding the unique and private beliefs and strategies (one's life style) that each individual creates in childhood.

This cognitive schema and life style serve as the individual's reference for attitudes, behaviors, and one's private view of self, others, and the world.

It is when we have looked at our early life experiences, examined the patterns of behavior that repeat themselves in our lives, and the methods by which we go about trying to gain significance and belonging that healing, growth, and change occur.

As articulated by noted Adlerian psychotherapist Henry Stein, the theory and application of Adlerian Psychology have as their lynchpins seven critical ideas:

Unity of the Individual

Thinking, feeling, emotion, and behavior can only be understood as subordinated to the individual's style of life, or consistent pattern of dealing with life. The individual is not internally divided or the battleground of conflicting forces. Each aspect of the personality points in the same direction.

Goal Orientation

There is one central personality dynamic derived from the growth and forward movement of life itself. It is a future-oriented striving toward a goal of significance, superiority, or success. In mental health, it is a realistic goal of socially useful significance or superiority over general difficulties.

In mental disorders, it is an unrealistic goal of exaggerated significance or superiority over others. The early childhood feeling of inferiority, for which one aims to compensate, leads to the creation of a fictional final goal which subjectively seems to promise future security and success.

The depth of the inferiority feeling usually determines the height of the goal which then becomes the «final cause» of behavior patterns.

Self-Determination and Uniqueness

A person's fictional goal may be influenced by hereditary and cultural factors, but it ultimately springs from the creative power of the individual, and is consequently unique. Usually, individuals are not fully aware of their goal. Through the analysis of birth order, repeated coping patterns, and earliest memories, the psychotherapist infers the goal as a working hypothesis.

Social Context

As an indivisible whole, a system, the human being is also a part of larger wholes or systems — the family, the community, all of humanity, our planet, and the cosmos.

In these contexts, we meet the three important life tasks: occupation, love and sex, and our relationship with other people — all social challenges.

Our way of responding to our first social system, the family constellation, may become the prototype of our world view and attitude toward life.

The Feeling of Community

Each human being has the capacity for learning to live in harmony with society. This is an innate potential for social connectedness which has to be consciously developed.

Social interest and feeling imply «social improvement,» quite different from conformity, leaving room for social innovation even through cultural resistance or rebellion.

The feeling of genuine security is rooted in a deep sense of belonging and embeddedness within the stream of social evolution.

Mental Health

A feeling of human connectedness and a willingness to develop oneself fully and contribute to the welfare of others are the main criteria of mental health. When these qualities are underdeveloped, feelings of inferiority may haunt an individual, or an attitude of superiority may antagonize others.

Consequently, the unconscious fictional goal will be self-centered and emotionally or materially exploitive of other people.

When the feeling of connectedness and the willingness to contribute are stronger, a feeling of equality emerges, and the individual's goal will be self-transcending and beneficial to others.


Adlerian individual psychotherapy, brief therapy, couple therapy, and family therapy follow parallel paths.

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, they are challenged to correct mistaken assumptions, attitudes, behaviors, and feelings about themselves and the world. Constant encouragement stimulates clients to attempt what was believed impossible.

The growth of confidence, pride, and gratification leads to a greater desire and ability to cooperate. The objective of therapy is to replace exaggerated self-protection, self-enhancement, and self-indulgence with courageous social contribution.

Interested in Learning More?

Check out our Master's or Certificate in Applied Adlerian Psychology.


Alfred Adler (1870-1937)

Alfred Adler Biography: Career and Life

Born in Vienna, Austria, to Hungarian parents, Alfred Adler was the third child and the second son in a family of seven children. He was a frail boy, developing rickets during his early years, before being struck by a near-fatal b pneumonia at age 5.

These serious health conditions, coupled with his rivalry with his older brother, led to feelings of inferiority throughout his childhood. Adler believed that these early life experiences were the major factors which drove him to become an excellent physician.

He went on to attend the University of Vienna Medical School and received his degree in 1895. Adler began his foray into the medical profession in the field of ophthalmology.

Adler and his wife fled Austria in 1932, after the rise of Hitler, and moved to New York where they remained until his death in 1937.

Adler’s influence is still evident in the many branches of psychology that reflect his theories.

Adlerian psychology maintains that regardless of their childhood experiences, people possess the power to transform their lives, their mental health, and their overall well-being.

Professional Life

Alongside Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Adler helped to pioneer depth psychology, which emphasizes the importance of unconscious processes. He is widely considered to be one of the most important figures in psychology.

Adler's relationship with the renowned psychiatrist Sigmund Freud began in 1902, when he was invited to join what would later become the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.

Though often referred to as a disciple of Freud, Adler was, in fact, a very strong-willed colleague—agreeing with Freud on some issues and disagreeing with him on others.

Although his influence in the society was impactful, Adler’s views on sociology and psychology differed radically from Freud’s, and by 1911, the men’s differences in approach and opinion were irreconcilable.

While Freud castigated Adler for his emphasis on conscious processes, Adler denounced Freud for his overemphasis on sexuality. Soon, intense social pressure from Freud’s most loyal followers resulted in Adler’s resignation as the president of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and the editor of the society’s journal.

Adler developed his own approach and his School of Individual Psychology was established in 1912 and was the belief that people’s relationships to their society were an integral part of their individuality. The foundation of Adler’s theory revolved around a person’s pursuit of superiority.

Adler believed that each person entered the world with a definitive inferiority complex and spent a lifetime trying to overcome it. This theory became known as “striving for superiority,” and Adler’s school focused on exploring this motivating force in the development of human behavior.

Although the growth of individual psychology was somewhat hindered by Adler's military service in World War I, his work did result in achieving worldwide recognition during his lifetime. Today, his theory and methods are widely applied in the fields of education, parenting, psychotherapy, and counseling.

Contribution to Psychology

Adlerian psychology, as it is known today, continues to pursue the study of overcompensation due to inferiority. A central premise of Adlerian psychology is that the unconscious works to convert feelings of inferiority into feelings of superiority.

Adler’s model suggests that behaviors, thoughts, and processing mechanisms are well entrenched in a person by the age of five and that the relationships the child forms in early life, along with social and environmental forces, are directly responsible for the development of those traits.

He also conducted research into the role that birth order plays in the development of the psyche.

Adler was one of the first psychiatrists to introduce mental health into the realm of education. He advocated for prevention strategies designed to ward off the risks of mental illness and inappropriate coping skills, and in this regard, contributed greatly to the field of social work.

Working within the schools, Adler assisted professionals in the practice of treating and counseling students. During that time, Adler conducted an intimate therapy session in front of a small group of people that was designed to treat parents, children, and teachers.

This impromptu session is one of the earliest records of family or community therapy. Adler went on to change the face of psychology by innovating the use of therapy in the treatment of many sectors of the population that had been significantly underserved.

His methods became an integral part of criminal therapy, social work, child development, and education.

Adler combined theories of psychodynamics and teleology in his work. Teleology is the study of final causes and the ways in which things are designed toward these causes. As part of this belief, he emphasized that psychological processes are guided by an unknown, goal-oriented force.

Adler developed a theory of personality, but did not believe in personality types and argued that his theory was tentative. His personality types included:

  • Getting or leaning types, who willingly and happily take from others without giving anything in return. This personality type is correlated with a low activity level. 
  • Avoiding types, who despise failure and defeat, and who are often hesitant to take risks. They tend to have few social relationships.
  • Ruling or dominant types who are on a perpetual quest for power and willing to manipulate people in order to get it. This type tends to engage in antisocial behavior. 
  • The socially useful types who tend to be outgoing, social, and active. These types strive to improve the world around them. 

The first three types tend to have more mental health problems, and it could be argued that a central goal of Adlerian psychology is to convert the first three types into the socially useful type.

Adler strongly influenced later psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Erich Fromm, and Albert Ellis. 

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Books by Alfred Adler

Last Update: 03-02-2018


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