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Adlerian Therapy


A way of understanding the psyche way before its time, Adlerian Therapy lies in stark contrast with Freudian Psychoanalysis. The client, rather than the therapist, is the expert on themselves, drives the goals of therapy, and enjoys a positive, even friendly, relationship with the therapist. The upside-down power structure and encouraging nature of Adlerian Therapy makes it useful in education, and attractive to Wiccan practitioners.

The Historical Context

Adler served as a physician in World War I, but instead of feeling the despair characterized by T.S. Elliot, he instead sought to save civilization by turning to psychology. Adler grew up in almost the same neighborhood and situation as Freud, but developed differently: they went to the same middle school (but 14 years apart), and studied the same subject at the University of Vienna, but they did not meet until 1902 (Flannegan). Adler befriended Freud, but broke with him ten years later. They would have worked under similar cultural mores of the Victorian era. But while Freud’s theories characterized the sexual repression of  the upper and middle classes, Adler’s ideas typified the later part of the century which was interested in an exploration of the lower classes, of children, and of charity to others less fortunate (not just the deserving poor). This was a time when society read broadly and liberally, enjoying phrenology and Spiritualism journals on one hand, and scientific and philosophical treatises on the other. While the sciences were becoming more compartmentalized and disciplined, the public read widely. This was the period of the arm-chair expert, but also some real scientific inquiry into their own stratified society. Freud and Adler represent these two polarities.

The Major Contributors

§  Alfred Adler (1870-1937) introduced his ideas in 1927 with his book Understanding Human Nature which was written in language the layman could understand (Corey). After a break with Freud, he formed the Society for Free Psychoanalysis in 1911. This organization became The Society for Individual Psychology in the following year (Boeree)

§  Hans Vaihinger (1852-1933) A German philosopher whose book The Philosophy of “As If” influenced Adler’s thinking by defining Kant’s work of “useful fictions” (Hans): “Vaihinger believed that ultimate truth would always be beyond us, but that, for practical purposes, we need to create partial truths” (Boeree). Vaihinger, and Adler, pointed out that we use these fictions in our mundane lives: “We behave as if we knew the world would be here tomorrow, as if we were sure what good and bad are all about, as if everything we see is as we see it, and so on. Adler called this fictional finalism. You can understand the phrase most easily if you think about an example: Many people behave as if there were a heaven or a hell in their personal future. Of course, there may be a heaven or a hell, but most of us don’t think of this as a proven fact. That makes it a “fiction” in Vaihinger’s and Adler’s sense of the word. And finalism refers to the teleology of it: The fiction lies in the future, and yet influences our behavior today” (Boeree). Vaihinger saw life as a “maze of frustrations and searched for a philosophy to make life livable” (Hans).

Key Concepts

  • Holistic, interconnected, socially orientated (originally called Gemeinschaftsgefuhl or “community feeling”), Adler believed humans are motivated by feelings of inferiority which we strive to overcome by compensation, striving, and creativity.
    • Clients have a proactive, not reactive approach to the environment
    • Beliefs about ones reality and movement through life is the client’s lifestyle which create and form the choices a client makes about their life.
    • Prefer to see therapy as a continuum of growth, not as a curing of psychological sickness.
    • Allow cultural identity to merge with the individual as the client becomes more aware of their unique self.
  • Focuses on the subjective perception of the client’s reality.
    • Client digs into their past to discover how early experiences shape present realities and patterns.
    • Early recollections are stories of events the client believes occurred before they were 10 years old—it doesn’t matter if the event is true or not.
  • Birth order and sibling relationships are significant to understanding a client’s worldview.
    • Oldest child: gets a lot of attention as long as they are the only one. Tends to be somewhat spoiled.
    • Second child: always shares attention with another, and may compete for that attention. Often opposite in personality of the oldest child.
    • Middle child: often feels “squeezed out”, cheated, and say that life is unfair because of the perceived uneven distribution of affection. May be a problem child to try to get attention, or the peacemaker if the family already has problems.
    • Youngest child: always the baby, tends to be the most pampered.
    • Only child: often acts like the oldest child, but may not learn to interact with other children, as their environment tends to be one of adults. Believes they are the center of attention at all times and may feel this is unfair if challenged (Corey).
  • For Adler, neurosis was a matter of insufficient social interest, but different energies are involved. He created these types roughly around the Greek Humors, but sees this as a convenient fiction not to be taken too literally:
    • Ruling type: tend to be aggressive and dominating, and may run over others in their striving for personal power. These include bullies and sadists, but also “somewhat less energetic ones hurt others by hurting themselves, and include alcoholics, drug addicts, and suicides” (Boeree)
    • Leaning type: tend to be sensitive and rely on others to get them through difficulties. These include folks with phobias, anxieties, obsessions and hysteria.
    • Avoiding type: tend to have the lowest energy and get by through avoiding situations and other people. When pushed to extremes “they tend to become psychotic, retreating finally into their own personal worlds”
    • Socially useful type: is a healthy person, with the right amount of energy to give to society.
  • Critics say that Adler’s view isn’t scientific enough. Since science works on a cause and effect continuum, and his ideas are teleological, they are thus hard to measure. “Adler could, however, respond to these criticisms very easily: First, didn’t we just finish saying that, if you accept teleology, nothing about human personality is necessary. And secondly, didn’t he go to great lengths to explain his ideas about fictional finalism? All of his concepts are useful constructs, not absolute truths, and science is just a matter of creating increasingly useful constructs. So if you have better ideas, let’s hear them!” (Boeree)

Evaluation of the Theory from My Religious Perspective

Of the theories so far, Adlerian is most aligned with what I have been taught as an educator, and ideas that come out of Pagan theology. Many of these ideas can be mapped with Wiccan understanding of Astrology and free-will. The “leaning type” can be seen as one type of Cancer, while “avoiding type” might be understood as Scorpio or Pisces. Wiccans and Pagans absolutely believe in the subjectivity of reality, though we have agreed with a few fictional finalisms within the community. While the religion is essentially individualistic, many groups like mine are finding that it is not enough to simply indulge in personal spirituality, but must engage with society as a whole, and with our own community.

The development of lifestyle is very important as Paganism is, by and large, a religion of converts. Many find the transition from the old (typically) Judeo-Christian religious ideas to be difficult, and must re-orient themselves around their new goals. It is understood by the community that new Pagans will undergo certain challenges and may display certain undesirable behaviors while they evolve towards their new lifestyle goals. These include Christian bashing, trying to convert others to their religious beliefs, and denying the validity of other religious experiences.

The relationship of High Priests and Priestesses, and their mentees is, at its best, reflective of the Adlerian client/therapist relationship. The mentor can see a whole spectrum of personality, and help the student to see where they are. They offer rituals and meditations which challenge the student on their faulty thinking. The mentors offer to align the mentees goals with the coven, grove or hearth through initiation into their social group, which includes access to the group’s useful fictions.


Boeree, C. G. “Personality Theories: Alfred Adler” <http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/adler.html>  Shippensburg University. 1997, 2006

Corey, G. “Psychoanalytic Therapy”. Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. 8th Edition. 2009

Somers-Flannegan, J. Somers-Flannegan, R. In Counseling and Psychotherapy in Practice: Skills, Strategies and Techniques. “Chapter 3: Individual Psychology: the Therapudic Approach of Alfred Adler”. John Wiley and Sons Inc. 2004. From < http://books.google.com/books?id=BpzrBuSe0ikC&pg=PA75&lpg=PA75&dq=alfred+adler+historical+context&source=bl&ots=ANdeWF_UDT&sig=V3LCRjxMPPzQiWFhb48zrP903rI&hl=en&ei=d8EiSsnHL5DwtAOS3czzAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1#PPP1,M1&gt;

Hans Vaihinger. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved May 31, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/621558/Hans-Vaihinger&gt;

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