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Dr. Alfred Adler's Psychology for Everyone

The LifeCourse Institute of Adlerian Psychology

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Major Concepts of Adlerian Psychology

Individual Psychology is a mature psychological system with a wide range of concepts. From the beginning, Adler wanted his approach to be easily understood by "the common man," and so used words and ideas which were familiar to the average person. For example, his concept of sibling rivalry was already familiar from the biblical stories of Cain’s jealous murder of his brother, Abel (Genesis 4:8-16), as well as from Joseph’s mistreatment by his brothers (Genesis 37:2-4, 17-24).

Adler also described personality shaping situations that were familiar from daily life. In the family constellation he pointed out the many ways the family and its interactions influence the developing personality, both in the roles parents play, and the positions of the siblings. In "family atmosphere" he pointed out the uniqueness of each family's ways and the atmosphere so produced, and the influence on all the family members. Of course we know the latter as "sibling position" which includes the characteristics of each child (first-born, second-born/middle, last-born, only) and how they influence the adult in later years. Thus his approach, because of its clarity and "common sense" terminology, appealed to a wide range of people beyond the medical profession.

Indeed, he purposefully went outside the established medical order and took his ideas directly to people through not only his clear writings, but his many talks, often to several thousand people at a time. One of his books (The Science of Living) is said to have started the so-called "psychological self-help movement."

Some of his concepts went against the grain of the then-current psychology, couched as it was in the scientific approach and the "medical model" of his day. The sciences were in thrall to the classical Newtonian understanding of the physical realm: it was the Age of Mechanism, and the physical world was seen as a machine. Everything could be explained by physics, from the rotation of planets to the behavior of individuals and nations. In psychology, the mind was also seen as a machine, turning out dreams and thoughts and neuroses based on its material origins.

But the new century brought new ideas: "Planck’s Constant" in 1900 to describe discontinuities between heat energy absorption and light energy emissions (the "birth" of quantum physics); Einstein’s discovery of the "first" quantum (later called a photon) in 1905; Einstein’ Theory of General Relativity in 1909; and Werner Heisenberg’s "Principle of Indeterminism" ("The Uncertainty Principle") in 1926, in which it was shown that one cannot observe both the motion and the location of quantum objects at the same time. We can know only one or the other. And even more perplexing (as later theoretical physicists argued), is that the existence of quantum objects seems to depend on observation; that they seem to come into existence by being observed!

The psychology of Adler’s time was wedded to the same science of mechanics on which physics rested. In it, past causes explained present problems, heredity and environment being the principal "causes" of personality. As Wolf says in his explanation of quantum physics for the non-scientist,

By the end of the nineteenth century, classical physics had become not only the model for the physical universe, but the model for human behavior as well. The wave of mechanical materialism, which began as a small ripple in the stream of seventeenth-century thought, had grown to tidal wave proportions. Physicists investigated dead things and physicians sought clockworks in living people. (Wolf, p. 46). Even mind itself must ultimately prove to be nothing more than an extremely complex mechanical device. Since mind must come from matter, what else could it be? Indeed, mind must show itself as a direct outcome of its material base. So thought Sigmund Freud. (P. 45)

Adler, however, took a different view: While heredity and environment had their influences on personality (how could they not?), he believed a third factor was just as important: the individual’s own choices in life. So Adler spoke of "soft determinism," in which the effects of heredity and environment are modified by personal decisions. He did not invent the concept of choice, of course; he was, however, the first to establish it as an important part of personality development. (See William Glasser's book, Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom, for an approach to the importance of choice much like Adler's. Also Lazarus' own comments on this in the article by Michael Nystul and Michael Shaughnessy, "An Interview with Arnold Lazarus," in Individual Psychology (Journal of Individual Psychology), 50:3, 372-385, 1994.)

Also different from others and their mechanistic ways (such as Freud, who likened personality to a steam engine!) Adler saw the person not as a collection of parts or pieces (here a leg, there an arm...) but as a totality of interconnected aspects. (The idea is not new. St. Paul used the concept of the interconnectness of body parts in describing the early church as "the body of Christ.")

Adler also believed that personality itself was not "set" or "determined" once and for all, the child being but a miniature adult, but is always in the process of development as a result of experiences, actions, and personal choices. Therefore the life of a person is not to be viewed as set forever at birth, but is seen as a movement through life, decisions leading in new directions. In a sense, then, as quantum physics introduced the "uncertainty principle," we could say that Adler introduced something similar into the field of psychology: That by a person simply considering his or her self is to change the self!

If Adler had a weakness (other than being a person of his own time and place) it was that he did not present his approach as systematically as he could have. Or at least as many Adlerians would have liked! Thus, there is no single place where he articulated his concepts. He left that to others. To compound things, he also changed his concepts from time to time, as he and his psychology grew, or used different words for much the same concept. An example of this is his use of "life style," as well as "life patterns" to mean the same.

The following major Adlerian concepts were originally accorded their own page on this web site. With this revision, they are all included here. Hence this (like the Adler section and also the "other concepts" section) is especially long.  Adler's major concepts are especially important to understand. However, it's likely there won't be many surprises. Adler’s ideas have become the basis for much of modern psychology and are recognized as basic by the psychologist, psychotherapist, or well-read lay-person. Even though they may not know Adler originated the terms and the ideas, they will still nod and say, "Yes, I knew that…"

Acknowledgement: I want to say a special thank you to Jane Griffith and Robert L. Powers who originally set out to define Adlerian terms, concepts, and principles in An Adlerian lexicon (Chicago: American Institute of Adlerian Studies, 1984). That work was important in setting me on my own path to creating my own list of important Adlerian terms and, from Adler's writings and those of others (primarily the Ansbachers), creating my own definitions. Now Jane and Robert have created The Lexicon of Adlerian Psychology: 106 Terms Associated with the Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler (Second Edition, 2007). You can get acquainted with them, their publications, and their other Adlerian work at

Unity of Personality

Adlerians believe individual personality is best understood not as separate parts, traits, or instincts but as an integrated and self-consistent whole. Everything that could normally be considered "part" of a person was considered under this over-arching concept of unity. The complete, integrated pattern was seen to serve a person’s ultimate goals. Adler’s was the first "holistic" psychology. As he said, "The findings of Individual Psychology point to the fact that all behavior of a human being fits into a unit and is an expression of the individual’s style of life." (Ansbachers, 1964, p. 358)

For Adler, personality unity or self-consistency was closely tied to the fictional final goal or guiding self-ideal by which one organizes one’s life in specific ways to achieve an ultimate, idealized solution to a basic life problem. As he stated,

The consideration of the unity of the personality led us to the conviction that early in life, in the first four or five years, a goal is set for the need and drive of psychical development, a goal toward which all its current flow. Such a goal not only determines the direction which promises security, power, and perfection, but also awakens the corresponding feelings and emotions through that which it promises. Thus the individual mitigates his sense of weakness in the anticipation of his redemption. (Ansbachers, 1964, p. 100)

So we have a picture of a person with a goal and a way to get there, developed in childhood and "bequeathed" to the adult as the major life undertaking, and in which all aspects of the individual join together self-consistently to achieve. For more on that goal, see the article "Fictional Finalism" on what Adler called the "fictional final goal.")

The main point here is that Adler did not separate the "parts" of a person in his psychology. For him there was no separate Id, Ego, or Super-Ego, no Conscious/Unconscious/Preconscious, nor even a separate personal past or present or future or separate actions unconnected to thoughts and/or feelings. In fact, he said that personality can not be so separated. It was this that led him to select the name for his approach as "individual" psychology. Not that it was about the individual or separate person. No, the word was from the Latin individuum which means "that which is complete and whole and cannot be separated." He wanted his psychology to reflect this.

So the person we see in Adler's approach is not one who is one person when he is married, another when he is a parent, a third when he is on the job, a fourth when he is with friends, and so on. It is always the same person, always pursuing the same goals and using pretty much the same methods throughout the movement which is his life. This person is a single, unified, complete person.

It is also this idea that helps the focus of psychotherapy. Unlike Freud, and even Jung to some extent, Adler did not see the parts of a person at war with each other in a deep, murky underlayer of personality (the Unconscious). Instead, he saw actions, thoughts, and feelings as all expressing the unity of the person. If "unhappiness" was at the fore, it would appear in physiological/organic ways as well as in relationships, work problems, and more. The Adlerian sees the person as an integrated unity who, while seemingly unraveled for the moment, is still a whole person.

Purpose; Goal-directedness

Individual Psychology is a teleological psychology: it views personality as oriented toward the future rather than caused by the past. It forsakes the cause and effect" mechanism in favor of a dynamic approach to individual movement. Here behavior is governed by, serves, and expresses a person’s goals, in particular the fictional final goal. Traditionally, when we ask "why" we think, feel or act in a certain way, we think causally. That is, we seek an explanation in a past occurrence of what led us to that behavior now. In Adler’s view, "Why" asks instead, "What is the intention of that behavior for the future?" As Adler himself put it,

The efforts of Individual Psychology have a;ways been mainly directed toward grasping the "Why" of phenomena— why (toward what end) a human being behaves in a manner which seems to us extraordinary or pathological. . . . In view of our comprehensive general outlook, it is understandable that we should throw into relief the question of why a human being behaves in such a way as not to solve his life problems in the manner generally expected in his culture. Accordingly, in 1908, . . . I began to develop the finalistic viewpoint of Individual Psychology, and came to the conclusion that we must look upon the psychic life as a movement directed toward the solution of certain almost immutable life tasks. (in Ansbachers, 1964, pp. 113-114)

Applied to psychotherapy, this teleoanalytic approach examines behaviors in terms of intended outcomes rather than past causes, and explores the relation of those behaviors (thoughts, feelings, actions) in the support of the individual’s Life Style. As the Ansbachers put it,

A person would not know what to do with himself were he not oriented toward some goal. We cannot think, feel, will, or act without the perception of some goal. All the causalities in the world do not enable the living organism to conquer the chaos of the future and the plan-lessness of which we should be the victims. . . . Without any self-consistency, physiognomy, and personal note we would rank with the amoeba. Inanimate nature obeys a perceptible causality, but life is [subjectively] a demand. (Ansbachers, 1964, 96)

In a 1914 article, Adler indicated that this was a central assumption of Individual Psychology:

The essential point to be grasped psychologically and the one which interests us exclusively and practically and psychologically more than all others, is the path followed. Let me observe that if I know the goal of a person I know in a general way what will happen. . . . We must remember that the person under observation would not know what to do with himself were he not oriented toward some goal. If we look at the matter more closely, we shall find the following law holding in the development of all psychic happenings: we cannot think, feel, will, or act without the perception of some goal. (Adler, 1925,  2-3)

Related is the twin concept of "sequence" and "consequence," in which things happen (sequence, "the order of things") that have results (consequence). Adlerians consider two types:

1. Natural consequences arise from the logic of the natural or physical order. For example, "If you touch something hot, you’ll get burned" or "If you don’t eat, you’ll get hungry."

2. More important are Logical consequences which arise from the logic of the social order, that is, from social interactions and one’s place in the community. For example, "If you are nasty, people will avoid you," or "If you are a friend to others, they will be friendly to you."

This idea of consequences for one’s own behavior is seen especially in the applications Adler and others (especially Dreikurs, the Dinkmeyers, and McKay) have made to child discipline. See especially Systematic Training for Effective Parenting: STEP and STEP for Parents of Teens, both by Don Dinkmeyer and Gary McKay, originally published by American Guidance Service, Circle Pines, Minnesota, 55014. (Phone: 1-612-786-4343) but now published and distributed by STEP Publishers • P.O. Box 51722 • Bowling Green, KY 42102 • 800-720-1286.


Adlerians assume people experience events within a highly personal framework, what Adler called the apperceptive schema. The result is personal beliefs about self, others, and the world. These beliefs become one’s personal truth. In common terms, we take everything personally; that is, as if everything that happens applies to us. Believing our perceptions to be accurate and truthful, that is, The Truth, we act as if they are true. Adler’s was the first phenomenological or existential psychology.

This is a central point in Individual Psychology. It was not popular when Adler suggested it, since the general view of man was deterministic in that behavior was caused by past events or outside sources. Even so, he said (emphasis added):

For me there can be no doubt that everyone conducts himself in life from the very beginning as if he had a definite opinion of his strength and his abilities and a clear conception of the difficulty or ease of the problem at hand. In a word, I am convinced that a person’s behavior springs from his opinion. We should not be surprised at this, because our senses do not receive actual facts, but merely a subjective image of them, a reflection of the external world. In considering the structure of a personality, the chief difficulty is that its unity, its particular style of life and goal, is not built on objective reality but on the subjective view the individual takes of the facts of life. Each person organizes himself according to his personal view of things, and some views are more sound, some less sound. (Ansbachers, 1964, p. 182-183.)

In this sense, then, the individual creates his or her own reality, and acts as if that reality is true, reminding us of our introductory remarks about how, in quantum physics, observation creates the quantum reality.

In this, Adler was an existentialist, following in the ideas of Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish theologian/philosopher who is credited as being the Father of modern existentialism. We think especially of S.K.'s statement that "subjectivity is truth," and that what you believe to be true is true for you, and so you will act as if it is true. It is this reliance on "my truth is the true truth" that often gets us into trouble with others, especially our partners when they have a different viewpoint on something than we have.

In this also, Adler followed the lead of Hans Vaihinger and his theories about "acting as if."Here we think of his statement, "If we perceive something as real, we will then act as if it were so, and behave accordingly." (See the article on "As If" in the next section.)

The individuals' creation of his/her own reality leads a step further when we consider consensual reality. This theory says that something we agree exists does exist. If you and I believe that there are ghosts, then (this theory says) there are ghosts. Or UFOs, or elves, or whatever. The question for this theory to answer is whether believing something is so can make it so.

Also related is something less conjectural: consensual labeling. This is how we agree to see the world as it is by agreeing to the names we give things. If you and I agree that this hard thing is a rock, then it is a rock because we have named it so. If we get other people to agree to use the same word (or sound, "rock") for the same thing, then we have all consented (hence, consensual) that the name of the thing is "rock." This is the basis for language, and for the kind of mind-reading we humans do...that is, you know what I have in my mind when I use words we agree on to describe my inner experience. "I feel sick" is a clear statement that you and I (and others) can agree describes something specific about my inner life.

Which brings us back to subjectivity, and our ability to create our own world by labeling things within it and believing that our labeling (the names and words we use) is true. "I feel sick" is one thing. "That I feel sick and therefore deserve to be treated as special" is something else. Here I move my inner experience through my "private logic" (see that term elsewhere) and make a demand of others within my community. Another step would be, "...and if you don't treat me as special, I will make it hard for you!" Or even more so, "If you don't agree to bend to my will, I will hurt or even kill you!" All such ideas begin with labels/names/words, and how we use them not only to describe our experiences, but also to make logical or illogical demands of others.

Inferiority and Superiority

Adler’s best-known concept comes from early in his career: That, as children, we feel inferior to others: weak where they are strong, dependent where they are independent, etc. This is a "natural" consequence of early childhood, compared with adults or older siblings. Internalized and carried forward in life as a self-definition, however, it becomes an inferiority complex. Adler at first explained it in terms of physical or organ inferiority (size, weakness, or disability) but later expanded it to include social factors and spoke of inferiority feelings. He said that such a self-assessment (or "minus self-rating"), internalized and carried into adulthood, led to over-compensation by a will to power which becomes a superiority complex or superiority strivings toward the "plus" side.

I shall consequently speak of a general goal of man. A thorough-going study has taught us that we can best understand the manifold and diverse movements of the psyche as soon as our most general pre-supposition, that the psyche has as its objective the goal of superiority, is recognized. . . . This goal of complete superiority, with its strange appearance at times, does not come from the world of reality. Inherently we must place it under "fictions" and "imaginations." Of these Vaihinger…rightly says that their importance lies in the fact that whereas in themselves without meaning, they nevertheless possess in practice the greatest importance. For out case this coincides to such an extent that we may say that this fiction of a goal of superiority so ridiculous from the view-point of reality, has become the principal conditioning factor of our life as hitherto known. (Adler, 1925, pp.7, 8)

It should be noted that, unlike many in his day (including Freud, who saw man as an "untamed beast within," following the still-prevailing views of 17th century social philosopher Thomas Hobbes), Adler had a highly positive view of human beings, both actual and potential. Thus when he spoke of "inferiority" in young children, he was not thinking of some "original sin" but of a learned internalized response, a choice the child makes which becomes the basis for self-definition, Guiding Goal (whose attainment will cancel inferiority) and Guiding Line (the individual’s movement toward that idealized goal).

Childhood, like all of life, involves problems and problem-solving. Adler believed that, from all of childhood’s problems, one will emerge as unable to be solved by the child. Yet it must be solved if life is to have meaning, for until it is solved one will remain inferior and vulnerable. Thus to solve it will provide safety, mastery and power. The belief that there is a Perfect Solution and that one spend the rest of one’s life to find it, becomes what Adler called the individual’s fictional final goal which underlies and explains all other behaviors.

By the way, it has been noted by some Adlerians that Adler himself used the terms "organ inferiority" and "inferiority feelings" but did not use the term "inferiority complex" until late in his career, when an American newspaper reporter wrote that Adler was "the father of the inferiority complex." The first part is true; the part about the reporter, while quoted, has not been substantiated.

In real life, inferiority expresses itself in various ways. Adler suggested the main expression was to seek superiority to make up for feelings (or evidence?) of inferiority. Thus, striving to be on top rather than on the bottom in life, striving to be first instead of last, plus instead of minus. The abstract is made concrete in what one does to achieve one's goal: by marrying the right person, living in the right town or part of town, having the right job, going to the right school, and so on. In each case, of course, "right" is defined as the evidence that one has overcome whatever was seen as less, and has achieved more. Where this striving becomes all-consuming, where it involves not just compensation (an even balance) but over-compensation (going well beyond even), Adlerians usually say it has gone beyond inferiority "feelings" (that is, self-assessment...not a physiological or organic sensation) to an inferiority "complex." By this they mean that the striving itself has become the defining activity, a thing in itself, and that the goal ("to be plus, better, higher, stronger, richer...etc.") is secondary. Here we have, then, a person who has exaggerated the need to rise above perceived inadequacies until it has become all-consuming.

Private Logic and Common Sense

Private Logic

Feeling inferior or judging ourselves to be inferior or inadequate or less-than-others makes us vulnerable; this orients us toward ourselves rather than toward the community, turning us inward rather than outward. We use Private Logic (Adler also called this "private intelligence") to excuse and justify behavior which places us ahead of or above others. Such a person may reason, "I can do what I want," or, "I don’t have to follow the rules that others follow." Such reasoning is in the service of the main goal of getting ahead instead of remaining behind, and omits any consideration of working along side others in cooperation. Here's a way Adler explained it:

A robber-murder expresses himself: "This young man had beautiful suits and I had none. That is why I killed him." This is quite intelligent thinking and acting. Since he is not confident that he is able to acquire suits in the generally usual manner, on the generally useful side of life, he can in fact attain beautiful suits only by robbing. To do this he must kill the other person. [These and similar examples] will always find arguments which are completely "intelligent" . . . by which to reach their goals. . . [and are] "intelligent" in respect to the goal of personal superiority on the useless side of life. This private intelligence is to be sharply differentiated from what one must call reason, common sense. We find intelligence in both cases, but we call reason the kind of intelligence which is connected with social interest. (Ansbachers, 1964, p 45.)

So then, one can find ways to justify or excuse just about any activity. The person who lies, cheats, steals, or whatever, all to advance his or her own personal cause (and without regard for the interests of others) is evidence of the universality of Private Logic. Think of the thousands of young men and women who would never, in their wildest dreams, think of taking a gun and shooting a stranger to death. Then think of a formal training program (the military) that wipes away any thoughts of abhorrence of the idea, and replaces those thoughts (perhaps family or religious teachings) with what we are talking about here: Private Logic...the internal, mental reasoning that allows one to do something that would otherwise never even be considered.

Consider terrorism, in which the Private Logic that allows individuals and groups to commit acts of social atrocity are based on religious, political, ideological, or personal "reasoning." Here we have private logic in the extreme, something more than "socially useless" but "socially destructive." Considering the idea that human beings are created by the community...we have to ask if persons who commit such terrible acts against the community can be said to be human beings. Or have they forfeited their right to be thought so, by what they do?

Common Sense

Individual Psychology contrasts Private Logic with Common Sense, which is the community’s wisdom about ways people should behave among others. The child is exposed to this community wisdom in the words and actions of others, religious teachings, folk sayings, customs, etc. Private Logic justifies socially useless behavior, while Common Sense encourages socially useful behavior. It is, as Adler noted, "thinking which corresponds to the human community" (AA, Ansbachers, 1964, p. 217). He equated common sense with Reason, the ability of the individual to "be intelligent" in socially-useful ways.

Much of the teleoanalytic approach of Adlerian therapy is oriented toward uncovering private logic that supports the individual’s mistaken style of living. This approach to understanding behavior is grounded in the future and in the future purpose of present behavior. "Teleoanalysis" means to uncover the future in the present. Thus Adlerians ask, "What do you intend to get out of what you are doing?" and aren't nearly as concerned with what "caused" the behavior.

The self-oriented thinking of Private Logic is the basis for many of the individual’s problems in life, not only to excuse "socially useless" behaviors, but also to justify maintaining a generally mistaken life style. Adler’s own approach was to "make guesses" about the client. For example, a therapist might say, "I wonder if, when you say that your parents compared you unfavorably to your older sibling, you are really giving yourself an excuse to not try as hard as you could." If the client’s response is a wry smile (as in, "You got me there!"), the therapist suspects he is on target in having revealed a piece of private logic. The purpose is not to play "Gotcha!" (which would merely feed into the client’s sense of inferiority) but to make "public" to the client what has been a private reasoning to justify a style of behavior.

Family Constellation

Adler introduced the idea that individual attitudes and behaviors are learned within the family, which is the child’s first experience with society. This takes place in three ways which, like several stars that appear in the sky to make a pattern, is a "constellation":

1. Sibling position (numerical and psycho-social) is influenced by birth-order, comparisons with sibling, and the child’s sex.

While several thousand studies of sibling position support Adler’s early reasoning on the topic, Adlerians view the psycho-social position of the child relative to siblings as more important than mere numerical placement. This takes into account innate intelligence, whether a child is wanted, spoiled, abused or neglected, etc., the influence of the sex of each sibling (including traditional parental preferences), which parent the child most or least favors or resembles, behaviors and attitudes of the siblings among each other, parental comparisons between children, a child’s special gifts or talents, special problems such as handicaps or retardation, and more.

2. Parental examples are important as the young child seeks to understand what it means to be "a grown-up." So the child pays attention to parental models of adult roles: male and female, mother & father, husband & wife, etc. Imitation of these roles in play and imagination becomes the foundation for later adult self-definitions and relationships.

Meadian role theorists as well as researchers in marriage and family have confirmed Adler’s assertions that how a child perceives parental behavior in adult roles is a major influence on how the eventual adult will adopt, adapt, accept, or reject those same roles for the self

3. Family atmosphere includes the family’s social status, its views and definitions of itself, the home’s emotional climate, daily life in the home, family ideas about correct behavior, etc. Adler saw that what is learned in the family (the child’s first experience with community) is central to one’s later self-image, relationships, work, marital choices, parenting, moral behavior, and how one pursues one’s goals.

This is a key point in Adler’s understanding of the formation of the child personality. Again, family sociologists as well as cultural anthropologists have noted the influence of the family setting on the child and later adult. Among such influences are family stories, "place" at the family table, waking and bed-time rituals, family likes and dislikes, the family’s emotional climate (serious, fun-loving, pleasure-seeking, goal-oriented, etc.), celebrations of key events (birthdays, anniversaries) and holidays; vacations, hobbies, and "spare time"; etc.

But what is "family"??

In a graduate school seminar years ago, our professor insisted that, together and with unanimity, we define "family." We couldn't do it. That is, we could not agree on one single definition that took all variations into account. Of course the standard "mom, dad, a son, a daughter, and a dog" was quickly shot down. At some point a key Adlerian idea comes into play: That however we personally define something is the definition we go by. ("Subjectivity is truth" as Kierkegaard said, meaning "What you believe to be true, for you is The Truth on which you will then base your actions." So then, "family" becomes what we decide it means for us. One of us includes adopted children, another of us includes gay partners as parents, a third of us says "This is a family, even though there are no children in it," and so on.

Adler was a person of his time (first third of the 20th century) and place (Vienna, Austria) and family (raised in an at least observant Jewish family with mother, father, brothers and sisters) and cultural circumstances (middle class male in a male-dominated society which had certain notions about men, women, children, work, and the world). All of which, and more, were reflected in some of his ideas (including the family, family atmosphere, sibling position, etc.). In some cases he rejected the ideas of his setting and blazed new trails for the brave to follow; in other case he assumed cultural ideas, perhaps without even questioning them, much as we often do today.

Life Tasks

Adler held that each person is called on to successfully perform three major tasks in life: Society (in relationships and community), Work (in one’s contributions to society), and Sex and marriage (including procreation and responsible child-rearing). He alluded to two others: Self, and One’s Place in the Cosmos.

Adler noted that "all tasks which are put to the individual are social problems, for which the family is the exercise and training ground." (AA, Ansbachers, 1964, p. 52.) Thus seemingly individual (or personal) tasks are in fact social tasks, arising out of the community which sets the standards for successful accomplishment. To behave as a responsible member of society is not a "personal" choice, but is required by the community. To work at a job is not a "personal" thing, but is required by the community as a way to contribute to the betterment of all. Even sex is not a "personal" thing, but is set within the larger context of the community’s requirement having to do with procreation, responsible child-rearing, etc. And so on.

While Adler had very liberal views on many topics, in other ways he was traditional and a product of his times. He viewed sex as an activity that should take place only in marriage, and then mainly for procreation rather than, for example, recreation. He assumed marriage was the goal of every normal male and female. He saw homosexuality as a neurotic avoidance of one's responsibility to the community to reproduce another generation of human beings. Even so, at a time when social sex role definitions favored men, he asserted the equality of the sexes. He saw work as another way one defines oneself rather than as a labor one had to do to earn a living, and also as one’s contribution to the community which created him, or in the case of criminal activity, takes something away.

In LEAP we consider six important features of life, incorporating the Adlerian life tasks with core beliefs arrived at in childhood from experiencing specific events (Adlerian Early Recollections). LEAP presents them as concentric circles around the individual, beginning with self and going outward through love, others/community, work, the world, to mystery/limits. With Adler, we assume that one must deal adequately with all six in order to be said to have attained maturity as a human being. And following the concept of holism and personality-unity, we can also assume that a failing in any one of the areas suggests a weakness in all. Likewise, with Adlerians, LEAP assumes that dealing appropriately with all six areas is an indicator of mental or personality "health."

Social Embeddedness

What ties everything together for Adler is the individual within the community. It would not be too much to say that, for Adler, human being" is defined by the human community, and one cannot be said to be human apart from that community. Or: Community Creates Human Beings.

"Community" is found best in Adler's central concept of Gemeinschaftsgefühl, a word as hard to define as to pronounce! It has been translated as "Social Interest," "Social Sense," Social Feeling," "Community Feeling," "Community Sense, and "Feeling of Community." It is found in his ideas of The Iron Law of Communal Life, Family Constellation, and nearly all of his concepts.

For a good summary of Adler's concept of community, and of other major Adlerian ideas, see Henry Stein's web site for a complete chapter from the book Psychoanalytic Versions of the Human Condition: Philosophies of Life and Their Impact on Practice, edited by Paul Marcus and Alan Rosenberg, published in 1998 by New York University Press. The article is "Classical Adlerian Theory and Practice" by Henry T. Stein and Martha E. Edwards.

Adler began in 1902 with Freud to help explore the inner psychic life of the individual. Today we call the general approach that concentrates on the individual's inner life and personality "psychodynamic psychology." Adler had already seen the necessity of including the individual within the shaping influence of the community, whether that be the family, the neighborhood, friendship, the work setting, or the world and culture. Thus he saw that concentrating on the individual alone was too narrow a focus for psychology and for psychotherapy. Adler expanded his viewpoint in various ways to include the various ways that human organize themselves in larger groups. His term for his approach, "Individual Psychology," (or, in the original Austrian: Individualpsychologie) seems to focus on the individual. However, in German it means the psychology of the indivisible, undivided person. He wanted to contrast his way with Freud's, who separated the personality into parts or pieces: Id, Ego, Super-Ego, Conscious/Unconscious/Preconscious, etc. And it is this personality which is shaped and influenced and, indeed, created by its Social Embeddedness within the human community, beginning with the family.

From birth onward, a person is part of a social setting whose influences and responsibilities cannot be avoided. Society, experienced first as the family, insists on certain beliefs, actions, attitudes, etc. A person is as much a creation of social setting as of personal choice or genetic design. Adler said this influence is so strong and basic that he called it "The Iron Law of Communal Life." Society’s demands are transmitted through games, friendship groups, fairy tales, rules, customs, folk sayings, religion, school, and more.

It was this expansion of psychology beyond the individual to include the community that made him so important and influential in psychological circles, to the extent that all who came after him (as well as most who studied with him) included the social element in their studies, and even based their therapeutic methods on Adler's concepts. That the community is key in shaping the individual is central to Individual Psychology. It became so much a part of basic thinking that it quickly came to be assumed by others, including "neo-Freudians." Consider the following, which one would assume is about a book by or about Adler:

This book provides a systematic presentation of the later thinking of the psychiatrist who, perhaps more than any other, pushed psychiatry toward a keener recognition of social factors in mental health and mental disease. (He) believed in viewing the individual in his relations to other people and to his social setting. Psychiatry became, to him, not the study of mental disorder, but the study of human living. [Italics added.]

But the quote is not about Adler. It is from an introduction to Harry Stack Sullivan’s The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry. (Sullivan, 1953, p. x.) Like so many other psychological thinkers over the years, Sullivan came to see the importance of society and community ("social factors") in personality, psychology, and mental health issues. My point here is not that Sullivan was not an important factor in social psychiatry...but that it was Adler who was the "psychiatrist who, more than any other, pushed psychiatry toward a keener recognition of social factors in mental health and mental disease" long before Sullivan or any others, laying the groundwork in stressing the shaping influence of the community on individual personality. Today we simply assume that society and community are part of who we are as persons, and we have never learned, or have forgotten, that it was the psychiatrist Adler who introduced and extended the concepts.

Law of Movement

Adler believed the concept of Movement was his greatest contribution to understanding personality. He wrote:

Everyone carries within himself an opinion of himself and the problems of life, and a law of movement which keeps fast hold of him without his understanding it or giving himself an account of it. The law of movement in the mental life of a person is the decisive factor for his individuality. The declaration of this law was actually the strongest step Individual Psychology has taken. We have always maintained the view that all is movement. (Ansbachers, 1964, p. 87)

Movement through life may be thought of as proceeding along a guiding line leading toward one’s ultimate guiding goal. All events, thoughts, and actions describe that line and are oriented around it. Adler spoke of all one’s actions being able to be traced on "the graph of life, and said "We can never know what actions will characterize a man if we know only whence he comes. But if we know whither he is going we can prophesy his steps and his movements towards his objective." His major student, Rudolph Dreikurs, said that one could connect an individual’s important life events and so plot a person’s life goal and direction "like points on a line."

Although all of life is movement, not all movement is useful. Some movements may distract the individual’s movement toward worthwhile goals, or move the individual toward goals which are not worthwhile. Adler described "neurotic types of movement" by which individuals prevent their positive forward movement: distancing, hesitating, detouring, and the "narrowed path of approach."

The idea that life can be described in terms of movement along a path is, of course, hardly new with Adler. Major world religions speak of the "journey" or "way" of life. And we find the idea in such folk sayings, such as: "falling behind," "hitting a bump in the road," "going astray," "being in a rut," "catching sayings. It’s interesting that men, more than women, and "executive types" (male or female) tend to find this easier. I wonder if it has to do with something cultural: men more than women, and business-types more than non-business-types, tend to think in terms of "movement." Which reminds us of another saying: "the rat race."

In LEAP classes, I ask members to think of how such Movement through life may be thought of as proceeding along a guiding line leading toward one’s ultimate guiding goal (Adler’s categories). All events, thoughts, and actions describe that line and are oriented around it. Adler spoke of all one’s actions being able to be traced on "the graph of life, and said "We can never know what actions will characterize a man if we know only whence he comes. But if we know whither he is going we can prophesy his steps and his movements towards his objective." His major student, Rudolph Dreikurs, said that one could connect an individual’s important life events and so plot a person’s life goal and direction "like points on a line."

I also find that clergy tend to find this an easy task. Their thinking, especially as they consider sermon topics, often involve the concept of movement, the future, life as a journey, etc.

Fictional Finalism

Adler believed that, of all a child’s problems, one will stand out as so important that one decides this I must spend my life to solve. It is fictional because a child is in no position to judge life’s real problems; and it is final because to solve it becomes the ultimate goal of life. Adler held that people arrange their lives in order to justify and enable their fictional, final goal, or what he earlier called (in The Neurotic Constitution, 1912) the guiding self-ideal.

The development of the mental life is accomplished with the help of a fictional teleology through the proposing of a certain end under the pressure of a teleological apperception. The goal of the mental life . . . becomes its governing principle, its causa finalis. Here we have the root of the unity of personality, the individuality. It does not matter what the source of its energies may have been. Not their origin but their end, their ultimate goal, constitutes their individual character. (Ansbachers, 1964, p. 94)

A part of Adlerian therapy is to reveal the goal so it can be revised, resulting in a different and more satisfying line of movement.

In LEAP we speak of the Mistaken Mission to mean the same thing. The image is of a journey toward an idealized solution to the childhood problem. On this mission, unrelated issues take second place. With Adler, specific activities are associated with this Mission: education, career, marriage, parenting, religious and political activities, etc. The purpose is to bring one nearer to the goal where the Problem is solved.

Life Style

This is the largest concept in Individual Psychology, and probably in all of psychology. It represents the totality of the person and personality, the individual’s basic approach to life, the unified and self-consistent pattern of beliefs, perceptions, attitudes, relationships, and actions which make up the complete person. Adlerians use it to refer to the central core of a person’s life, who this person is – past, present, and future – who seeks such-and-such final goal. Adler himself posed the concept early on, and then simply assumed it in his writings without extended definition. Perhaps the closest he came to an actual definition was relatively late, in The Science of Living in 1929. He begins by describing a pine tree in two conditions:

Its style on top of the mountain is different from its style growing in a valley. The style of life of a tree is the individuality of the tree expressing itself and molding itself to an environment. We recognize a style when we see it…for we then realize that every tree has a life pattern and is not merely a mechanical reaction to the environment. It is much the same way with human beings. We see the style of life under certain conditions…and it is our task to analyze its exact relation to the existing circumstances, inasmuch as mind changes with alteration of the environment….We have seen how human beings with weak organs, because they face difficulties and feel insecure, suffer from a feeling or complex of inferiority. But as human beings cannot endure this for long, the inferiority stimulates them…to movement and action. This results in a person having a goal. Individual Psychology has long called the consistent movement toward the goal a plan of life but because this name has sometimes led to mistakes among students, it is now called a style of life. (Adler, 1929, pp. 98-100)

Because the term is used in other ways today, the LEAP approach uses LifeCourse, summarized in ten Patterns (a term Adler also used for Life Style) which are created in childhood and carried into adult life. Review the ten LifeCourse Patterns covered in LEAP, and as you do, think of all of them as various ways to describe the single, integrated "life style" (what we call "life course") of the individual human being. Everything that you read about there (family history, family atmosphere, siblings, parental roles, childhood events...everything... is part of and contributes to the total person: The Adlerian Life Style. So it is no accident or exaggeration when I begin this definition with "the largest concept in . . ."


Fundamental to the Life Style is meaning, which cannot be imposed from without but must be decided from within. We speak of it in terms of the meaning for oneself which are attributed to otherwise objective events in one’s life. Thus the meaning of an event is not "the meaning of the event" but "the meaning of the event for me." The original event in every life is the natural inferiority of infancy and young childhood, to which the child must find personal meaning. Adler says that such meaning is found, in general, in a "will to power," that is, in the early establishment of the goal of superiority; and in specific (that is, in The Problem of childhood), in The Solution which the child poses for him or her self as an adult to successfully conclude. In What Life Should Mean To You, he said:

The goal of superiority, with each individual, is personal and unique. It depends upon the meaning he gives to life; and this meaning is not a matter of words. It is built up in his style of life and runs through it like a strange melody of his own creation….The greatest part of his meaning must be guessed at; we must read between the lines. So, to, with that profoundest and most intricate creation, an individual style of life. The psychologist must learn to read between the lines, he must learn the art of appreciating life-meanings. It could not be otherwise. The meaning of life is arrived at in those first four or five years of life; and it is not arrived at my a mathematical process, but by dark gropings, by feelings not wholly understood, by catching at hints and fumbling for explanations. (Adler, 1931, pp. 57-58)

In this sense, then, Adler proposes to answer the question "What is the meaning of life?" in highly personal terms. No no universal answer fits everyone. Instead, there is a highly personal and subjective meaning which each person discovers individually. Early in life, the individual posits that personal meaning in terms of the Fictional Final Goal (the Solution to the child's Problem), and the Life Style, with its Guiding Goal and Guiding Line, as the means by which it is carried out.

"Meaning" is not usually included in any list I've seen of the top ten or dozen Adlerian concepts.Yet without it, so much of Adler's philosophy and psychology would not make sense. It is at the core of his approach to what we might call "freedom of will" and his concepts of "soft determinism," "psychology of use," and "apperceptive schema.”

Social Interest/Fellow Feeling

From his experiences during World War I, Adler came to believe that community involvement, helping others, kindness, empathy, and similar personal attributes are crucial to individual and social health. He spoke of the ability to see from the other’s viewpoint, to contribute through work and volunteerism, to cooperate in solving community problems, etc. Adlerians see Social Interest as a measure of maturity, of positive movement in therapy, and as evidence that one has succeeded in the Tasks of Life.

Adler connected social interest with striving for perfection, a goal of both the individual and the community. He saw it as a cornerstone (however late in coming) to his entire system. Thus in 1933 he said to the Vienna Medical Association:

Particularly, it means feeling with the whole, a striving for a form of community which must be thought of as everlasting, as it could be thought of if mankind had reached the goal of perfection. It is [not a specific] community or society [or] political or religious form. The goal best suited for perfection would have to be a goal which signifies the ideal community of all mankind, the ultimate fulfillment of evolution. We conceive this idea . . . as the ultimate form of mankind in which we imagine all questions of life, all relationship to the external world as solved. It is an ideal, a direction-giving goal. This goal of perfection must contain the goal of the ideal community, because everything we find valuable in life, what exists and what will remain, is forever a product of this social feeling. (Ansbachers, 1964, pp. 34-35)

In some ways, Social Interest appears to be a Fictional Final Goal, an unattainable ideal. Even so, Adler came to see it as a central task of humanity, individually and collectively. Of course it has a long history in the ideals of major religions and philosophies. In individual life, we see it as altruism, caring, working together and cooperating toward common goals, volunteerism, and similar activities. It comes as no surprise that Adler said the motto for social interest is the Golden Rule.

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