Adlerian Theory (Individual Psychology)

Loneliness and disconnection from the social environment or experiencing the feeling of inferiority and not knowing how to overcome it are dimensions that Adlerian therapy works on. Find out more about this kind of therapy here.
Adlerian Theory (Individual Psychology)
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 23 May, 2023

Individual psychology based on Adlerian theory outlines an interesting holistic therapy that’s in use today. It gives the individual tools to overcome feelings of inferiority and work on a sense of belonging. Indeed, a healthy connection with others is key to promoting well-being and happiness.

The Austrian doctor, Alfred Adler, created this therapy in the 20th century. With it, he aimed to help individuals overcome their difficulties and promote personal growth. Adler distanced himself from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic model, due to the differences between them. And, in doing so, he developed a resource endorsed by science and well worth discovering.

Alfred Adler built his own school and an avant-garde therapeutic model after moving away from his colleague, Sigmund Freud.

Individual psychology

Adler’s theory of individual psychology was a cutting-edge and advanced approach for its time. In fact, research conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) states that this therapeutic model served as a basis for subsequent approaches. Today, even cognitive-behavioral therapy draws on the same theory.

Although Adler was part of the psychodynamic current -to the point of presiding over the International Psychoanalytic Association, in 1910, he separated from it and oriented himself to another perspective.

As a matter of fact, the father of Adlerian therapy criticized Freud’s biological and deterministic point of view. He adopted a more social and positive vision of human nature. Next, we’re going to examine the pillars that underpin his psychological approach.

You might also like to read Cloninger's Theory of Personality

1. Holistic vision

The person is a whole, a unit that’s impossible to understand by attending to only one of its areas, such as biology. Humans are the result of different processes. Therefore, a global vision is required to understand and help them. The processes to be understood are as follows:

  • Fears.
  • Instincts.
  • Education.
  • Needs.
  • Experiences.
  • Social context.

2. Feeling of belonging

One of the goals of individual psychology is to encourage the individual’s feeling of belonging. In other words, to guide them to recover their interest in social coexistence, creating healthy and meaningful bonds. After all, humans need to build networks and social interactions to survive, feel safe, learn, and be happy.

3. A positive, humanistic, and inclusive model

Research conducted by Sam Houston State University (USA) claims that Adler’s individual psychology was a precursor to positive psychology. This field views the individual, not as someone who’s sick, but as a figure capable of developing new learning to grow. They simply need to reorient themselves to build a meaningful and healthy life.

Alfred Adler believed in a type of psychology that favored human well-being by helping individuals to overcome their problems, limitations, and fears. He was also interested in understanding the influence of social context.

4. The path to excellence

Adler was known for his theory on the inferiority complex. In fact, the individual psychological approach seeks to deactivate this debilitating perception or feeling in patients. Because, according to the Adlerian theory, one of our purposes, as in the humanist theory, is to achieve excellence and self-realization.

To achieve this, we must deactivate low self-esteem and the idea of not being as valid as others.

5. Ideographic and creative approach

In addition to the holistic perspective that conceives of the human being as a whole, Adler’s model emphasizes the importance of perceiving ourselves as unique beings. It views each individual as having their own trajectory, needs, ideas, and realities that are different from those of any other. Not only that, Adlerian theory emphasizes the fact that anyone is capable of creating their own destiny through goals.

Alfred Adler

Adlerian theory applied to therapy: basic concepts

Adlerian therapy is a holistic model and thus integrates different approaches. For example, it has both a social and a humanistic component. But, above all, it has a positive and even resilient vision of the human being. This makes it a striking therapy. Its aim is to re-educate the individual to reshape, in some way, society itself.


According to the work, Adlerian Therapy: Theory and Practice (2006), this therapy is based on the individual psychological field and centers on a psycho-educational approach. Its aims are to:

  • Overcome feelings of inferiority and discouragement.
  • Adopt behaviors that promote social interest.
  • Seek that the individual builds a healthy and happy sense of belonging.
  • Seek that the individual builds a more positive vision of themselves that leads to self-realization.
  • Understand how the individual builds their life and relationships, to then favor a positive change in them.


Individual psychology applies beneficial techniques for human development, well-being, and connection with the environment. This implies creating a safe and nurturing therapeutic environment that helps the individual to grow, heal, and learn. The tools it employs are as follows:

  • Empathy. The psychologist builds an empathic relationship with the patient to help them develop their strengths.
  • Lifestyle evaluation. The psychologist needs to know the defective dynamics in the patient that lead to their suffering.
  • Construction of goals and expectations. The patient must be encouraged to overcome and achieve motivating objectives that generate healthy changes.
  • Looking to the past to build the future. This makes it possible to understand the origin of human discomfort. Indeed, understanding yesterday means a more valuable present can be built and new behaviors adopted.

Today, Adlerian therapy offers specialists absolute freedom to employ techniques from various schools, such as the cognitive-behavioral approach.


To encourage personal growth and defuse feelings of inferiority, Adlerian therapists follow a series of stages. They’re as follows:

  • Therapeutic alliance and commitment. This is the decisive factor. In fact, without this alliance between professional and patient, no advances or achievements could be attained. Therefore, a union sustained by empathy and mutual collaboration is necessary.
  • Assessment. The psychologist must analyze the lifestyle of their patient. They must also get to know their past and the behavioral dynamics of each situation.
  • Knowledge. The patient must understand which parts of their life they need to change to find well-being and invest in their personal growth.
  • Reorientation and reformulation. Change comes when human beings vary their behaviors and adopt new, more profitable, resilient, and positive mental approaches.

You might be interested to read Psychedelic Therapy

The usefulness of individual psychology

Adler’s individual psychology has a place in treating various areas of mental health, especially in promoting personal growth. In fact, it’s in this area where its greatest potential lies. It’s generally useful in the following clinical areas:

  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Addictions.
  • Schizophrenia.
  • Empowerment.
  • Decision making.
  • Individuals with low self-esteem.
  • Improvement of social relations.
  • Personal improvement and resilience.
  • Negative thoughts and discouragement.
  • Feelings of inferiority and loneliness.

The Adlerian therapy approach avoids pathologizing the human being. Instead, it seeks to awaken their potential and direct them toward positive changes that favor social connection and feelings of happiness and well-being.

A patient receiving therapy based on individual psychology and Adlerian theory
Adlerian therapy helps treat feelings of inferiority and foster a sense of belonging.

What you should know about this therapy before choosing it

Adlerian therapy was developed in the mid-20th century. Since then, it’s been reformulated, and today, there are newer models like Adlerian brief psychotherapy. A study conducted by the University of Turin (Italy) claims that this therapy is suitable for treating everything from eating disorders to personality disorders. However, if you feel like giving this therapy a try, you should consider the following:

  • The model is oriented to change, so it demands commitment.
  • It’s a scientifically valid and effective approach, but may not be useful for everyone.
  • The alliance between the professional and patient is essential. If they’re not in sync with each other, there’ll be no progress.
  • It’s essential to find a therapist who specializes in this kind of therapy.
  • Part of the intervention is to look at the past of the patient. This may not be comfortable for everyone.
  • Adlerian therapy is integrated into other techniques such as rational emotive behavioral therapy, brief strategic psychotherapy, and person-centered therapy.

In conclusion, this is a valuable approach that was very innovative when it was developed. Moreover, it’s endured over time and is now even integrated into other models and schools such as positive psychology and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.