Alfred Adler’s Theories of Individual Psychology and Adlerian Therapy

Portrait of Alfred Adler in the library with his own books. Hand drawn illustration.

Key Takeaways

  • Early interaction with family members, peers, and adults helps to determine the role of inferiority and superiority in life.
  • Adler believed that birth order had a significant and predictable impact on a child’s personality, and their feeling of inferiority.
  • All human behavior is goal orientated and motivated by striving for superiority. Individuals differ in their goals and how they try to achieve them.
  • A natural and healthy reaction to inferiority is compensation: efforts to overcome real or imagined inferiority by developing one’s own abilities.
  • If a person cannot compensate for normal feelings of inferiority, they develop an inferiority complex.
  • The overarching goal of Adlerian psychotherapy is to help the patient overcome feelings of inferiority.

Alfred Adler’s school of individual school of psychology created a chasm in the field of psychology, which had been dominated by Freud’s psychoanalysis.

While Freud focused on only the internal processes — mainly sexual conflicts — that affect a person’s psychology, Adler was adamant that to fully understand a person, a psychologist must also consider other internal factors as well as external factors.

This is why he named his school of psychology individual; the word is intended to evoke a meaning of indivisibility, derived from the Latin individuum (Mosak et al., 1999, p. 6).

Compensation, Overcompensation, and Complexes

Adler thought that the basic psychological element of neurosis was a sense of inferiority and that individuals suffering with the symptoms of this phenomenon spent their lives trying to overcome the feelings without ever being in touch with reality (White, 1917)

Compensation for Weaknesses

According to Adler (2013b), all infants have a feeling of inferiority and inadequacy immediately as they begin to experience the world.

These early experiences, such as the need to gain the parents’ attention, shape the child’s unconscious, fictive goals. They give the child a need to strive towards rectifying that inferiority — a need to compensate for weakness by developing other strengths.

There are several outcomes that can occur in a child’s quest for compensation. First, if the child receives adequate nurturing and care, the child can accept his challenges, and learn that they can be overcome with hard work. Thus, the child develops “normally” and develops the “courage to be imperfect” (Lazarsfeld, 1966, pp. 163-165).


However, sometimes, the process of compensation goes awry. One way in which this happens is that the feelings of inferiority become too intense, and the child begins to feel as though he has no control over his surroundings. He will strive very strenuously for compensation, to the point that compensation is no longer satisfactory.

This culminates in a state of overcompensation, where the child’s focus on meeting his goal is exaggerated and becomes pathological.

For example, Adler (1917) uses the ancient Greek figure Demosthenes, who had a terrible stutter but ended up becoming the “greatest orator in Greece” (p. 22).

Here, Demosthenes started off with inferiority due to his stutter, and overcompensated by not just overcoming his stutter, but taking up a profession that would normally be impossible for a stutterer.

Inferiority Complex

Overcompensation can lead to the development of an inferiority complex. This is a lack of self-esteem where the person is unable to rectify his feelings of inferiority.

According to Adler (2013a), the hallmark of an inferiority complex is that “persons are always striving to find a situation in which they excel” (p. 74). This drive is due to their overwhelming feelings of inferiority.

There are two components of these feelings of inferiority: primary and secondary. Primary inferiority is the “original and normal feeling” of inferiority maintained by an infant (Stein & Edwards, 2002, p. 23). This feeling is productive, as it provides motivation for the child to develop.

Secondary inferiority, on the other hand, is the inferiority feeling in the adult results when the child develops an exaggerated feeling of inferiority (p. 23). These feelings in the adult are what is harmful, and they comprise the inferiority complex.

Superiority Complex

The superiority complex occurs when a person has the need to prove that he is more superior than he truly is. Adler (2013a) provides an example of a child with a superiority complex, who is “impertinent, arrogant and pugnacious” (p. 82).

When this child is treated through psychotherapy, it is revealed that the child behaves in this impatient manner because he feels inferior.

Adler (2013a) claims that superiority complexes are born out of inferiority complexes; they are “one of the ways which a person with an inferiority complex may use a method of escape from his difficulties” (p. 97).

Personality Typology, or Styles of Life

Adler did not approve of the concept of personality types; he believed that this practice could lead to the neglect of each individual’s uniqueness.

However, he did recognize patterns that often formed in childhood and could be useful in treating patients who fit into them. He called these patterns styles of life.

Adler (2013a) claimed that once a psychologist knows a person’s style of life, “it is possible to predict his future sometimes just on the basis of talking to him and having him answer questions” (p. 100)

Adler and his followers analyze a person’s style of life by comparing it to “the socially adjusted human being” (p. 101).

Birth Order

The term birth order refers to the order in which the children of a family were born. Adler (2013b, pp. 150-155) believed that birth order had a significant and predictable impact on a child’s personality:


First-born children have inherent advantages due to their parents recognizing them as “the larger, the stronger, the older.”

This gives first-born children the traits of “a guardian of law and order.” These children have a high amount of personal power, and they value the concept of power with reverence.


Second-born children are constantly in the shadow of their older siblings. They are incessantly “striving for superiority under pressure,” driven by the existence of their older, more powerful sibling.

If the second-born is encouraged and supported, he will be able to attain power as well, and he and the first-born will work together.

Youngest Child

Youngest children operate in a constant state of inferiority. They are constantly trying to prove themselves, due to their perceptions of inferiority relative to the rest of their family.

According to Adler, there are two types of youngest children.

The more successful type “excels every other member of the family, and becomes the family’s most capable member.”

Another, more unfortunate type of youngest child does not excel because he lacks the necessary self-confidence. This child becomes evasive and avoidant towards the rest of the family.

Only Child

Only children, according to Adler, are also an unfortunate case.

Due to their being the sole object of their parent’s attention, the only child becomes “dependent to a high degree, waits constantly for someone to show him the way, and searches for support at all times.”

They also come to see the world as a hostile place due to their parents’ constant vigilance.

Adlerian Psychotherapy

The following section is a summary of the six stages of Adlerian psychotherapy, which was developed by Stein and Edwards (2002).

These stages serve as a guide, since every individual’s journey will have a slightly different path.

As Adler (2013a) put it, “Just as one cannot find two leaves of a tree absolutely identical, so one cannot find two human beings absolutely alike” (p. 102).

Since in Adlerian psychology, the goal is for the patient to feel competent and connected, the overarching goal of Adlerian psychotherapy is to help the patient overcome feelings of inferiority.

This process has three subgoals:

  1. To reduce the inferiority complex of exaggerated feelings of inferiority to a normal and helpful size, where the patient strives for significance but is not overridden;
  2. To reduce and banish the superiority complex of constant striving for superiority over others; and
  3. To promote feelings of community and equality.

Phase 1: Establishing the Therapeutic Relationship

For the psychotherapy to be effective, it is essential that the therapist and the client commence with a healthy working relationship. There must be a “warm, empathetic bond” which opens the door for gradual progress.

This bond is created by genuine warmth and compassion expressed by the therapist, in addition to the trust of the client in the relationship.

Phase 2: Assessment

The therapist must conduct a thorough assessment of the client in order to develop an effective therapeutic process. The analysis must identify at least the following elements:

  • Feelings of inferiority
  • Fictive goal, defined as “an imagined, compensatory, self-ideal created to inspire permanent and total relief, in the future, from the primary inferiority feeling”
  • Psychological movement, defined as “the thinking, feeling, and behavioral motions a person makes in response to a situation or task”
  • Feeling of community
  • Level and radius of activity
  • Scheme of apperception
  • Attitude toward occupation; love and sex; and other people

These assessments are done through various methods, including the projective use of early memories in addition to intelligence, career, and psychological testing.

Phase 3: Encouragement and Clarification

The process of encouraging the client helps them reduce feelings of inferiority. The therapist can start by acknowledging courage that the client has already shown, and continue by discussing small steps the client can take towards getting to a more confident place.

For instance, if the client has a limited radius of activity, the client and the therapist might discuss ways to broaden their activity.

The second crucial aspect of this phase is to clarify the client’s core feelings and beliefs regarding the self, others, and life in general. This is done using Socratic questioning.

Through this method, the therapist challenges the clients’ private logic and focuses on psychological movement around his fictive goal.

Phase 4: Interpretation

Once the therapy has reached the point where the client has made some progress, and he and the therapist have examined the meaning of his movement in relation to his goals, the therapy is ready to begin interpreting the client’s style of life.

This must only be done when the client is encouraged sufficiently, and this must be done with significant care.

Discussing and recognizing topics such as the inferiority complex can be difficult for the client, but new insight can be transformative.

Phase 5: Style of Life Redirection

Now that the client and the therapist have recognized the issues with the client’s style of life, the task becomes to redirect the style of life towards life satisfaction.

This involves reducing and productively utilizing feelings of inferiority, changing the fictive final goal, and increasing feelings of community.

This is accomplished using different methods, depending on the specific needs of the client.

Phase 6: Meta-therapy

Finally, some clients may wish to seek further personal development, towards higher values such as truth, beauty, and justice.

Towards this end, the therapist can provide stimulation for the client to become the best version of himself.

This process is certainly challenging and requires a deep understanding of the individual client.

Critical Evaluation

As with all psychodynamic approaches to human psychology, Adlerian individual psychology receives criticism for being unscientific and difficult to prove empirically. Specifically, its focus on the unconscious fictive goal makes it arguable that Adlerian psychology is unfalsifiable.

Though Adler’s theories are difficult to definitively prove, recent neuroscience has provided some support.

A recent study summarizing modern neuroscientific evidence, and how it relates to Adlerian psychology, agreed with a statement made by Maslow in 1970:

“Adler becomes more and more correct year by year. As the facts come in, they give stronger and stronger support to his image of man” (Miller & Dillman Taylor, 2016, p. 125).

In regards to Adlerian psychotherapy, the modern-day attitude is that while the practice is simple and easy for the layman to understand, it is flawed because it is not empirically based.

Adler’s form of counseling is criticized for its lack of depth, notably, its lack of a foundation that deals with issues not related to concepts such as birth order and early recollections (Capuzzi & Stauffer, 2016, p. 142).

How did Adler Disagree with Freud?

Sigmund Freud Alfred Adler
Behavior is motivated by internal biological drives (sex and aggression) Behavior is motivated by social influence and striving for superiority
People have not choice in shaping their personality People are responsible for who they are
Present behavior is caused by the past (e.g. childhood) Present behavior is shaped by the future (goals orientation)
Emphasis on unconscious process People are aware of what they are doing and why
Freud split the personality into components (id, ego, superego) Adler thought the individual should be studied as a whole (holism)
Relationship the same-sex parent is of primary importance Wider family relationships including with siblings of primary importance


Adler, A. (2013a). The Science of Living (Psychology Revivals). Routledge.

Adler, A. (2013b). Understanding Human Nature (Psychology Revivals). Routledge.

Adler, A., Jelliffe, S. Ely. (1917). Study of Organ Inferiority and its Psychical Compensation: A Contribution to Clinical Medicine. New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing Company.

Capuzzi, D. & Stauffer, M. D. (2016). Counseling and Psychotherapy: Theories and Interventions. Germany: Wiley.

Lazarsfeld, S. (1966). The courage for imperfection. American Journal of Individual Psychology, 22 (2).

Miller, R. & Dillman Taylor, D. (2016). Does Adlerian theory stand the test of time?: Examining individual psychology from a neuroscience perspective. The Journal of Humanistic Counseling, 55 : 11-128. doi:10.1002/john.12028

Mosak, H. H., Maniacci, M., Maniacci, M. P. (1999). A Primer of Adlerian Psychology: The Analytic-Behavioral-Cognitive Psychology of Alfred Adler. United Kingdom: Brunner/Mazel.

Stein, H. T. & Edwards, M. E. (2002). Adlerian psychotherapy. In Herson, M. & Sledge, M. H. (1st Ed.), Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy (Vol. 1, pp. 23-31). Netherlands: Elsevier Science.

White, W. A. (1917). The theories of Freud, Jung and Adler: III. The Adlerian concept of the neuroses. The Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 12 (3), 168.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Riley Hoffman

Research Assistant at Harvard University

B.A., Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology, Harvard University

Riley Hoffman is a research assistant at MGH Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Harvard University.

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