Adlerian psychotherapy – an overview


Quick Summary: In this post I will be giving an overview of Adlerian psychotherapy, which was one of the first theories in the field.

Overview Of Adlerian psychotherapy

  • Views the person holistically as a creative, responsible, “becoming” individual moving toward fictional goals within his or her phenomenal field


  • One’s life-style is sometimes self-defeating because of inferiority feelings


  • The individual with “psychopathology” is discouraged rather than sick


  • The therapeutic task is to encourage the person to face his/her difficulties, activate his or her social interest and to develop a new life-style through relationship, analysis, and action.


  • The degree of one’s social interest is a measure of his/her health.


  • This theory is more socially focused than any other theory


  • Believed that people have worth and respect – a very positive focus of human nature


  • The theory is concerned with the social influences on the person – a cultural component is included in assessment of all aspects of the client


  • It is a bio-psycho-social approach. Adlerians work with behaviors, feelings and thoughts


  • Able to incorporate techniques from other theories into our work very easily as an Adlerian.


  • Research is very favorable to Adlerian work  – supports its efficacy


Key Concepts:

View of Human Nature

  • Believed that we form an approach to our life in the first 6 years of living


  • Humans are motivated by social relatedness not sexual urges


  • Our behavior is purposeful and goal-directed.


  • Consciousness, rather than the unconscious is the focus of therapy


  • Adler stressed choice, responsibility, striving for success, completion and perfection.


  • Focus of the theory is on feelings of inferiority, which is views as a normal condition of all people – and which contributes to our striving in life.


  • Adler was the forerunner to a subjective approach to psychology.



  • At the heart of Adlerian counseling and therapy


  • Each individual develops a unique lifestyle, which he/she then uses throughout life to work toward his/her goals and to govern his/her life.


  • Develops early in life and is influenced by both biology and psychosocial factors.


  • An individual uses this “cognitive map” to interpret the world and to interact with it.


Subjective Perception of Reality

  • Phenomenological approach, meaning Adlerians strive to understand how client’s view their world


  • The client’s subjective reality includes their perceptions, thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs, convictions, and conclusions


Unity and Patterns of Human Personality

  • Lifestyle – the way in which one approaches the world – is a very important concept in Adlerian therapy


  • Personality must be understood within specific familial, social and cultural contexts.


  • Adlerian therapy focuses more on interpersonal relationship than on an individual’s internal psychodynamics


Social Interest and Community Feeling

  • Refer to individuals’ awareness of being part of the human community and to ones attitudes in dealing wit the social world


  • Social interest – includes striving for a better future for humanity


Birth Order and Sibling Relationships

  • Because human problems are viewed by Adlerians in a social context, they emphasize intrafamily relationships


  • Birth Order is important to Adlerians because it provides them with information regarding the individual’s lifestyle.


  • Adler spoke of 5 psychological birth positions:


  1. Oldest child
  2. Second child
  3. Middle child
  4. Youngest child
  5. Only child


Family Constellation and Atmosphere


  • Includes birth order and roles


  • Assesses a client’s experience in his/her family and how this influences his/her development and worldview.


  • What happens in the family largely determines a person’s early lifestyle beliefs.


Mistaken Beliefs

Distorted lifestyle beliefs as a result of what one has concluded about himself/herself and the world are seen as interfering with the person’s healthy growth and development and as being the primary reasons for psychological problems.

Adler listed five kinds of mistaken beliefs:

  1. Overgeneralizations
  2. False or impossible goals of “security”
  3. Misperceptions of life and life’s demands
  4. Minimizations or denial of one’s worth
  5. Faulty values


Life Tasks

  • One’s social interests are demonstrated through a series of life tasks.


  • Adlerian counseling usually involves work with a client on accomplishing his/her life task(s).


  • Adler originally named three:


    1. Society
  • recognizing our interdependence with other members of society


    1. Work
      • part of our contribution to society


    1. Sex


  • Later authors (Mosak and Maniacci) identified work into six subtasks:


  1. Occupational choice
  2. Occupational preparation
  3. Satisfaction
  4. Leadership
  5. Leisure
  6. Socio-vocational issues (relationships with co-workers)


  • Social Task into two subtasks:


    1. Belonging
      • Finding ways to develop a sense of belonging


    1. Transactions
      • Our style of interacting with others


  • Defined the Sexual Task:
      • Involves sex role definition and identification, sexual development, and sexual behavior


  • A Self Task was added with four subcategories:


    1. Survival
    2. Body image
    3. Opinion
    4. Evaluation


  • Deciding how we think and feel about ourselves in these terms


A Spiritual Task with five categories:

  1. Relationship to God
  2. Religion
  3. Relationship to the universe
  4. Metaphysical issues
  5. The meaning of life


And a Parenting and Family Task that involves decisions about:

  1. Parenting
  2. Marriage
  3. Partner relationships
  4. Connections to family members


The Therapeutic Process

Therapeutic Goals

  • Primary purpose of therapy is to encourage the client to develop healthier ways of living out who they are.


  • Encourage clients to develop social interest, which is a measurement of health.


  • Encouragement is used throughout therapy to help the client build self-confidence and stimulate courage.


Therapist’s Function and Role

  • To provide encouragement


  • To help the client increase his/her self-awareness


  • To conduct a comprehensive assessment of the client’s lifestyle by looking at his/her birth order, family constellation, and earliest recognitions.


Relationship between Therapist and Client

  • A good therapeutic relationship in Adlerian therapy is collaborative in nature.


  • The relationship is based on cooperation, mutual trust, respect, confidence and alignment of goals.


  • Goals of therapy are decided collaboratively.


  • Clients are considered as active participants in a relationship between equals.


Application: Therapeutic Techniques & Procedures


Four Phases of the Therapeutic Process:

  • Counseling is structured around four central objectives, which correspond with four phases of the therapeutic process. These are:


  1. Establishing a relationship


  1. Assessment


  1. Encouraging the development of self-awareness (insight)


  1. Helping the client make new choices (also called reorientation and reeducation)


Phase 1: Establishing a relationship

  • Initial focus of session is on the person, not the problem


  • Expressing genuine interest in the person through active listening.


  • The therapist seeks to build a positive relationship with the client through listening, responding, demonstrating respect for his/her capacity to understand purpose and seek change, exhibiting faith, hope, empathy, and caring.


  • Therapist attempts to understand the client’s world from his/her subjective perspective.


Phase 2: Assessment

  • Involves a subjective interview and an objective interview, which are intertwined.


  • The subjective interview involves facilitating the client to share his/her story as completely as possible by showing empathic listening, interest, and response.


  • Intertwined in the subjective interview is the objective interview which involves specific questions designed to assess:


    • How problems in the client’s life began
    • Any precipitating events
    • A medical history
    • A social history
    • The reason the client chose to enter therapy at this time
    • The person’s ability to cope with life tasks
    • A lifestyle assessment


The lifestyle assessment includes:

–         Birth order

–         Family Constellation and Atmosphere

Assesses relationships between family members as well as roles and rules within the family

–         Early Recollections

Phase 3: Encouraging Self-Understanding and Insight

  • Insight is very important in Adlerian therapy


  • Defined as understanding (of motivations that operate in one’s life) translated into constructive action


  • Reflects a client’s understanding of the purposive nature of behavior, as well as awareness of the hidden purposes and goals of their own behavior.


  • Adlerian therapists facilitate this insight mainly by well-timed interpretations.


Phase 4: Helping with Reorientation


  • Action oriented phase where insight is put into action


  • Client is encouraged and challenged to take risks in life in order to make change by connecting to the strengths they have within themselves, to others, and to life.


  • During reorientation clients are also encouraged to self-monitor and catch themselves when they are repeating old patterns.


  • The therapist works with the client to identify alternatives to ineffective behavior, evaluate those alternatives then decide on a specific plan of action.




  • Encouragement:
    • Important in all phases of therapy. Involves offering hope, empathy, and understanding to client.


  • “Spitting in the Client’s soup”:


    • Involves exposing the client’s intentions in such a way as to make them unpalatable.


  • Acting “as if”:


    • Asking the client to as “as if” for the next week in response to their expression of “If only I could”.


  • Catching oneself:


    • Once the client has made personal goals and wants to change, they are instructed to catch themselves “with their hands in the cookie jar”.


  • The Push-Button Technique:


  • Helps clients realize that they create their own emotions and are not merely victims to them.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

9 thoughts on “Adlerian psychotherapy – an overview

  1. I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own blog and was curious what all is required to get setup? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very internet savvy so I’m not 100% certain. Any recommendations or advice would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks

  2. Hey there would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re using? I’m going to start my own blog soon but I’m having a difficult time deciding between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your design and style seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something unique. P.S My apologies for being off-topic but I had to ask!

  3. The very crux of your writing whilst appearing agreeable initially, did not really settle perfectly with me after some time. Someplace within the sentences you actually were able to make me a believer unfortunately only for a very short while. I however have a problem with your jumps in logic and you might do nicely to fill in all those breaks. In the event that you actually can accomplish that, I would surely end up being amazed.

  4. I need to body fat loss around my stomach to show off my abs but I don’t want to use supplements and don’t want to sacrifice muscle I’ve worked hard for. Are there any online programs out there for my concern?

Leave a Reply