Adler's Theory: Techniques and Methods

An Adlerian therapist sitting on couch with clipboard in hand.
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Alfred Adler was an American psychoanalyst who pioneered a therapeutic method that attempted to treat all significant aspects of the individual personality through an ongoing and relatively informal series of discussions. His approach has since become known as holistic therapy, although Adler didn't call it that. Adler began as a disciple of Sigmund Freud's but soon developed his own approach. Without dismissing Freud's insights, Adler relied more on treating feelings of inferiority and inadequacy symptomatically than on trying to reveal the roots of these feelings in the unconscious.

1 The Origins of Destructive Behavior

Adler believed that most destructive behavior originates in the individual's feelings of inadequacy or inferiority, often in childhood. Reducing and eventually eliminating this behavior was not solely the job of the psychoanalyst but also of the patient's community. Together, analyst and community provide encouragement, insight and support. In response, the patient's feelings of personal fulfillment increase. Unhelpful competitiveness, anger, feelings of rejection and rejection of others are replaced by feelings of acceptance, self-respect and respect for others.

2 Engagement and Assessment

Adler's approach to therapy has four stages. The first is engagement. By this, Adler meant that before patient and therapist can begin to heal, they must first agree to engage -- to trust each other enough to begin the therapeutic work. To a casual observer of the process, the beginning of therapy may not seem that different from friendly conversation. In the process, however, the therapist creates a safe environment for the patient to speak about a variety of significant therepeutic factors: her personal history, beliefs and behavior patterns. As this work progresses, the second stage has already begun, the process of assessment, during which the therapist begins to understand the patient's psychological profile in detail and in its entirety.

3 Insight and Reorientation

As patient and therapist investigate how the individual has functioned in the world, the therapist proceeds to the third stage of Adlerian therapy, which is insight. The therapist does not provide the insight directly; the patient reaches it herself with the therapist's help. An Adlerian therapist typically provides many more questions than answers. The last stage of Adlerian therapy is reorientation. The therapist encourages the patient to make positive changes in behavior based on the insights achieved. These positive behavior changes provide new opportunities for the patient to achieve further insight and, in turn, to engage in further positive actions that, over time, become habitual. The neurotic patient becomes the insightful and positive patient who functions effectively in the world.

4 Limitations and Offshoots

Every therapeutic method has limitations. The limitations of Adlerian therapy are that it works best with intelligent, verbal individuals who take some pleasure in the process, but it doesn't work as well for others. Another drawback -- confirming that Adlerian therapy is best suited to the affluent and well educated -- is that the four-stage process takes a long time and can be expensive. Adlerian therapy, nevertheless, has been enormously influential, and many other therapeutic methods are basically offshoots and developments, including Gestalt therapy and Rogerian therapy. Carl Rogers studied with Adler, as did Viktor Frankl, Abrahm Maslow and Rollo May. These men are usually thought of as the founders of the "human potential movement," in which the therapist, instead of giving the patient "expert" direction, helps the patient find her own way.

Patrick Gleeson received a doctorate in 18th century English literature at the University of Washington. He served as a professor of English at the University of Victoria and was head of freshman English at San Francisco State University. Gleeson is the director of technical publications for McClarie Group and manages an investment fund. He is a Registered Investment Advisor.