Individual psychology

From New World Encyclopedia

The term, "individual psychology," is commonly used to refer to the psychology of Alfred Adler. For the psychology of individual differences, see article on differential psychology.

Individual psychology is so named to emphasize the understanding that a person is "indivisible," meaning that people should be treated holistically. It was developed by Alfred Adler after he separated from Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic circle. The approach has wide-ranging goals and visions, regarding people as individual beings in need of harmony within, as well as social beings seeking harmony in relationships with others in all aspects of their lives. The hope of individual psychology is that through encouraging people to strive for socially beneficial goals, they will not only make valuable contributions to society, but will also achieve happiness as individuals.

Adler's Individual psychology

Individual psychology, also known as Classical Adlerian psychology after its founder, Alfred Adler, is a values-based, fully-integrated theory of personality, a model of psychopathology, philosophy of living, strategy for preventative education, and technique of psychotherapy. Its mission is to encourage the development of psychologically healthy and cooperative individuals, couples, and families, in order to effectively pursue the ideals of social equality and democratic living. A vigorously optimistic and inspiring approach to psychotherapy, it balances the equally important needs for individual optimal development and social responsibility.

Adler was a pioneer in creating a holistic view of human psychology. He explained human development in the context of the whole—how the human being exists and interacts within the family, society, nation, and world. He defined mental health as a feeling of human connectedness, a desire to develop oneself fully, and a willingness to contribute to the welfare of others. When these qualities are underdeveloped, an individual experiences feelings of inferiority, or an attitude of superiority which may antagonize others. The perception of superiority leads to self-centered behavior and the individual may become emotionally or materially exploitive of other people. When the feelings of connectedness and the willingness to contribute are stronger, a feeling of equality emerges, and the individual becomes more public minded, self-transcending, and behaves more beneficially to others.

A former colleague of Sigmund Freud's, Adler originally called his work "free psychoanalysis" for a time after their separation. However, he later rejected the label of "psychoanalyst" and his work became known as "individual psychology." Individual psychology also draws upon Abraham Maslow's concept of self-actualization as well as an adaptation of the Socratic method.

Key concepts

Primary and secondary feelings of inferiority

In individual psychology, the original and normal experience of infants and children, such as a feeling of smallness, weakness, or dependency, is known as the primary feeling of inferiority. This usually acts as an incentive for development. However, a child may develop an exaggerated feeling of inferiority as a result of physiological difficulties or handicaps, inappropriate parenting (including abuse, neglect, pampering), or cultural or economic obstacles.

The secondary feeling of inferiority is the adult's feeling of insufficiency that results from having adopted an unrealistically high or impossible compensatory goal; often one of perfection. The adult experiences a greater or lesser degree of distress, depending on how distant they feel they are from that goal. In addition to this distress, the residue of the original, primary feeling of inferiority may still haunt them as adults. An inferiority complex is an extremely deep feeling of inferiority that can lead to pessimistic resignation and an assumed inability to overcome difficulties.

Striving for significance

One of the central ideas in Adlerian psychology is the individual's striving from a feeling of inferiority toward a feeling of significance. The basic, common movement of every human being—from birth until death—is of overcoming, expansion, growth, completion, and security. This may take a negative turn into a striving for superiority or power over other people. Unfortunately, many reference works mistakenly refer only to the negative "striving for power" as Adler's basic premise. However, Adler used this term to indicate a future-oriented striving toward a goal of significance, superiority, or success.

When one is mentally healthy, this striving is a realistic goal of achieving socially useful significance or superiority over general challenges in life. In cases of mental disorder, however, it refers to an unrealistic goal of exaggerated significance or superiority over others. Adler spoke about the striving for significance in The Cause and Prevention of Neuroses:

To me it appears that every child, indeed every human being, for some reason, is continually striving to answer questions, to overcome difficulties, to solve riddles, and to develop himself in some degree towards a self-satisfying completion, the full achievement of his life purpose. No matter what may be the age of an individual, you will find tendencies which have their beginnings—if one may venture to use the phrase—in the dawn of life, and which, by their persistence, ever demand a development to a higher level.


Compensation refers to the tendency to make up for underdevelopment of physical or mental functioning through interest and training, usually within a relatively normal range of development. Overcompensation reflects a more powerful impulse to gain an extra margin of development, frequently beyond the normal range. This may take a useful direction toward exceptional achievement, or a useless direction toward excessive perfectionism. Genius may result from extraordinary overcompensation. Under-compensation reflects a less active, even passive attitude toward development, which usually places excessive expectations and demands on other people.

Social context

As an indivisible whole, or system, the human being is also a part of larger wholes or systems—the family, the community, all of humanity, our planet, and the world. In all these contexts, we meet the three important life tasks: occupation, love and sex, and our relationship with other people—all social challenges. The way an individual is raised as a child and responds to their first social system, the family constellation, may become the prototype of his or her world view and attitude toward life.

Adler espoused that individuals need to acknowledge their connectedness to the past as well as to the future. What we are able to do in our lives depends very much on the foundation of contributions made in the past by others. An essential question that Adler saw facing each person was, "What will be your contribution to life? Will it be on the useful or useless side of life?"

Feeling of community

"Feeling of community" is translated variably from the German Gemeinschaftsgefeuhl, as social interest, social feeling, and social sense. The concept denotes a recognition and acceptance of the interconnectedness of all people, experienced on affective, cognitive, and behavioral levels. At the affective level, it is experienced as a deep feeling of belonging to the human race and empathy with fellow men and women. At the cognitive level, it is experienced as a recognition of interdependence with others, i.e., that the welfare of any one individual ultimately depends on the welfare of everyone. At the behavioral level, these thoughts and feelings can then be translated into actions aimed at self development as well as cooperative and helpful movements directed toward others. Thus, at its heart, the concept of "feeling of community" encompasses the full development of each individual's capacities, a process that is both personally fulfilling and results in people who have something worthwhile to contribute to one another.

Adler spoke eloquently of community in Individual Psychology:

And since true happiness is inseparable from the feeling of giving, it is clear that a social person is much closer to happiness than the isolated person striving for superiority. Individual Psychology has very clearly pointed out that everyone who is deeply unhappy, the neurotic and the desolate person stem from among those who were deprived in their younger years of being able to develop the feeling of community, the courage, the optimism, and the self-confidence that comes directly from the sense of belonging. This sense of belonging that cannot be denied anyone, against which there are no arguments, can only be won by being involved, by cooperating, and experiencing, and by being useful to others. Out of this emerges a lasting, genuine feeling of worthiness.

Style of life

This is a concept reflecting the organization of the personality, including the meaning individuals give to the world and to themselves, their fictional final goal, and the affective, cognitive, and behavioral strategies they employ to reach the goal. This style is also viewed in the context of the individual's approach to or avoidance of the three tasks of life: other people, work, love and sex. A lifestyle is formed early in childhood and is unique to each individual. In healthy individuals, dealing with the life tasks is relatively flexible. They can find creative ways to solve problems; when one way is blocked, they can choose another. This is not so for the disturbed individuals, who usually insist on one way or no way.

Fictional final goal

Classical Adlerian psychology assumes a central personality dynamic reflecting the growth and forward movement of life. It is a future-oriented striving toward an ideal goal of significance, superiority, success, or completion. The early childhood feeling of inferiority, for which one aims to compensate, leads to the creation of a "fictional final goal," which subjectively seems to promise future security and success. The depth of the inferiority feeling usually determines the height of the goal, which then becomes the "final cause" of behavior patterns.

Unity of the personality

"Unity of the personality" is achieved when all of the cognitive, affective, and behavioral facets of the individual are viewed as components of an integrated whole, moving in one psychological direction, without internal contradictions or conflicts.

Private logic vs. common sense

"Private logic" is the reasoning invented by an individual to stimulate and justify a self-serving style of life. By contrast, "common sense" represents society's cumulative, consensual reasoning that recognizes the wisdom of mutual benefit.

Safeguarding tendency

The "safeguarding tendency" consists of cognitive and behavioral strategies used to avoid or excuse oneself from imagined failure. These can take the form of symptoms, such as anxiety, phobias, or depression, which can all be used as excuses for avoiding the tasks of life and for transferring responsibility to others. They can also take the form of aggression or withdrawal. Aggressive safeguarding strategies include depreciation, accusations, or self-accusations and guilt, which are used as means for elevating a fragile self-esteem and safeguarding an overblown, idealized image of oneself. Withdrawal takes various forms of physical, mental, and emotional distancing from seemingly threatening people and problems.

All behavior is purposeful

Individual psychology regards all behavior as purposeful. This is the perspective that an individual uses their thinking, feeling, and actions (even his symptoms) to achieve a social end. They do not merely inherit or possess certain qualities, traits, or attitudes, but adopt only those characteristics that serve their goal and reject those that do not fit their intentions. This assumption emphasizes personal responsibility for one's character, as opposed to being a passive victim of heredity or environment.


Adlerian individual psychotherapy, couple therapy, and family therapy follow parallel paths. Clients are guided to overcome their feelings of insecurity, develop deeper feelings of connectedness, and to redirect their striving for significance into more socially beneficial directions. Using a respectful Socratic dialogue, they are challenged to correct mistaken assumptions, attitudes, behaviors, and feelings about themselves and the world. Continual encouragement stimulates clients to attempt what was previously felt as impossible. The growth of confidence, pride, and gratification leads to a greater desire and ability to cooperate and try new tasks. The objective of therapy is to replace exaggerated self-protection and self-indulgence with courageous social contribution.

Other contributors to individual psychology

Several of Adler's students, including Rudolf Dreikurs, Lydia Sicher, Alexander Müller, Sophia de Vries, Anthony Bruck, and Henry Stein, continued his work and made unique contributions to the field.

Rudolf Dreikurs

Rudolf Dreikurs was an American psychiatrist and educator who developed Alfred Adler's system of individual psychology into a pragmatic method for understanding the purposes of reprehensible behavior in children and for stimulating cooperative behavior without punishment or reward. He suggested that human misbehavior is the result of not having met one of four basic human needs: power, attention, revenge, or avoidance of failure.

Dreikurs' main work and theory dealt with misbehavior of pre-adolescents. He reasoned that students “act out” based on four principled "mistaken goals." The first reason for their misbehavior is that they desire attention. If they do not receive the attention they crave through their actions (good or bad, e.g., doing well on a paper or throwing a tantrum), they move onto seeking power (e.g., they may refuse to complete a paper). If their power struggle is thwarted, they seek revenge. If revenge does not produce the desired response, they begin to feel inadequate. Dreikurs' writings detailed many ways to combat these behaviors. His overall goal was that students would learn to cooperate reasonably without being penalized or rewarded. They would cooperate because they would feel that they were valuable contributors to the classroom. Dreikurs' teachings also form the basis for many parent education programs.

Sophia J. de Vries

Sophia de Vries firmly believed Alexander Müller's appraisal that "Adler has not yet been fully understood. He has to be rediscovered from the roots up." She was born in Holland, emigrated to the United States in 1948, and is widely praised for igniting the renaissance of Adler's original teachings and style of therapeutic treatment in the United States.

De Vries’ translations of the works of Alfred Adler provided the foundation for the Adlerian Translations Project, a task force dedicated to the publication of The Collected Clinical Works of Alfred Adler, as well as the unpublished manuscripts of other Classical Adlerians.

Henry T. Stein

In Stein's presentation, A Psychology for Democracy, he made the case that the work of Adler, Maslow, and Socrates provide tools to contribute to the evolution of democracy. He expressed concern that U.S. democracy had eroded badly into unbridled self-interest, while citizens were neglecting their inner spiritual development. His proposed solution was to foster the development of democratic character. The democratic ideal must start within the individual and ultimately spread to family, friendships, school, and the world of work. The result of individual character development prepares citizens for the wider challenges of social responsibility.

How is this accomplished? Stein recommended training parents to develop democratic parenting practices at home that will give children an early experience of a democratic family life. Secondly, teachers should be trained to develop democratic practices in the classroom that address core values and personal morality. In addition, universities and businesses are further opportunities for training in democratic living. While many psychotherapies reinforce self-centeredness, Stein believes that individual psychology, with its emphasis on social equality, mutual respect, cooperation, responsibility, and contribution, provides the means of restoring democratic ideals by addressing the core of the problem: correcting undemocratic character structures. He concluded that Alfred Adler was a man before his time that showed us how to awaken the democratic spirit in every human being and harness that individual's creative power for the common good. Stein asserts that Adler's psychology of values can provide the solution to many of our social problems, enrich our inner life, and revitalize democracy.

Conclusion: The individual in social context

Individual psychology is not a model of the individual in isolation. Adler's psychology is very much a social psychology, in which the individual is seen and understood within his or her social context. In reality, Adler, unlike others, saw no fundamental conflict between self and society, individuality and relatedness, self interest and social interest. He viewed these as false dichotomies. In individual psychology, the development of self and connectedness are processes that influence one another in mutually positive ways. The more advanced one's personal development, the more able one becomes to connect positively with others. The greater one's ability to connect with others, the more one is able to learn from them and develop oneself.

Adler was keenly aware of the fact that human beings are connected in many different spheres and on many different levels. An individual is connected with family, friends, community, and so on, in ever expanding circles. The feeling of interconnectedness among people is essential not only for living together in society, but also for each individual person's higher development. Research has shown that if human infants do not have emotional connections with their caregivers, they will not only fail to thrive, but are very likely to die under those conditions. This connectedness can encompass animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, until, in the largest sense, the person feels connected with the entire universe. Adler believed that if people truly understood and felt this connectedness, then many of the self-created problems of life—war, prejudice, persecution, discrimination—might cease to exist. Such an optimistic outlook has led to the criticism that individual psychology is unrealistic in its expectations of success for people suffering serious disorders and for resolving the magnitude of evil that has tormented human history. Nevertheless, its positive view of humankind and human society has empowered many to overcome their difficulties and live more socially productive lives.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Adler, Alfred. 1927. The Cause and Prevention of Neuroses. Vol. 5: Adlerian Translation Project Archives at the Alfred Adler Institute of San Francisco (AAISF/ATP).
  • Adler, Alfred. 1964. Individual Psychology. Harper Perennial. ISBN 0061311545.
  • Boeree, C. George. 1997. Alfred Adler

External links

All links retrieved March 2, 2018.


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