This essay will examine the Adlerian approach to therapy in terms of the question
posed. It will present arguments for and against the statement backed by examples
from course materials. After presenting the contrasting arguments the essay will
focus towards a conclusion. Source materials used in this essay are course books
and course materials. Please see bibliography for details.
The writer will show that Adlerian therapy can help a “successful” member of
today’s society as the client will have a significant undercurrent of inferiority and
jealousy which has been compensated with excessive ambition, vanity and very
possibly obsession. He will have set himself unrealistic goals in a bid to become
superior to compensate for the lack of his self worth. The presenting symptoms
will be the psyche’s way of defending its non achievement of the final fictive goal.
The Adlerian therapists task is to enlighten and encourage the client towards
realistic harmony an to enable him to become a successfully integrated member of
Alfred Adler (1870 – 1937) was the second child of six. Although from a middle
class background he suffered from rickets, a spasm of the glottis, found his
younger brother dead, and nearly died himself from pneumonia. All this before his
fifth year of life. At school he had to repeat a year and subsequently excelled in the
subject of mathematics. In order to compensate for his own inferiority he decided
to become a doctor to overcome death. He believed that the body compensated for
what it lacked.
He was a member of the Viennese Psychoanalytical Society for nine years, and
wrote a book about organ inferiority which was greeted favourably by Sigmund
Freud. Disagreement between the two men ensued. Freud believed that sexual
instincts and inner conflicts shaped the person whereas Adler felt that society,
relationships, perceptions and striving for superiority were more significant.
It is problematic to define what exactly the terms of reference in society are.
Success and failure are very individualisticaly defined. However in terms of
stereotyped perception of what is successful it is pertinent to consider a person
with all the trappings of success: nice car, attractive wife/husband, lovely family,
plenty of money. The client may experience a growing dissatisfaction with
himself, relationships, disillusionment with career, and life in general. He may
also suffer addictions. He may be lonely, angry, obsessive, fearful, jealous, low
self esteem, depressed, excessively vain, easily upset, dissatisfied, domineering,
and feel inadequate. Such a client is not uncommon. Some will be eager to tell the
therapist of their ability, wealth and success, but inwardly will be perturbed that
they are not truly happy. They will be hiding behind a facade of such materialistic
“security” they have been separated from common sense and their true belief. The
following is an analysis of how this comes about.
Adler believed that we are all born into the world where we begin to feel inferior,
where adults are bigger than the child and where parents can be demanding with
their expectations because of their own unresolved insecurities “since every child
must grow up surrounded by adults, she is predisposed to consider herself small,
weak and incapable of living alone. She does not trust herself even to do those
simple tasks of which adults believe she is capable without mistakes or
clumsiness. Most of our errors in child-rearing begin at this point. When we
demand more than the child can do, the idea of her own helplessness is thrown in
her face.” (Alfred Adler – Understanding Human Nature p67). If the child seeking
love and attention is met with hostility and disdain, this can be introjected and
perceived as rejection. The physically handicapped child may well perceive “I am
not like everyone else, there must be something wrong with me” and will then try
and compensate for this perceived inadequacy by creating a false sense of inner
belief or private logic that may lead to rebelliousness, solvent abuse and
Adler believed that people need people and that we all have an inherent need to
belong to families and society. Social interest. Families are important as they are
the individual’s immediate source of contact as learning infants. “The family
isolates us from the rest of society” (Alfred Adler – Understanding Human Nature
p16). The family constellation plays a significant part in the development of the
inferiority complex. The set of relationships in the family and the detrimental
effects it can have on any one of the children are important.
The oldest child can lose his feelings of importance when the second child is born.
He can become arrogant, addicted to power as a result of feeling neglected and de-
throned. The second child may be constantly trying to outdo others as the eldest
child is above him, he may become excessively ambitious, jealous and vain as he
competes. The youngest child – may well be the client – can feel the most inferior
of all the family and may constantly use excuses for his smallness and
helplessness as he may be protected, closetted and looked upon like a doll by the
other members of the family. He may on the other hand become the most
successful of all the family as he attempts to overcome his hindrance. “No child
likes to be the smallest, the least capable, all the time. Such a position stimulates a
child‘s to prove that he can do everything. His striving for power becomes
markedly accentuated, so the youngest often grows up into a person desperate to
excel. determined to be the best at everything. It is not uncommon for the
youngest child to outstrip every other member of the family and become its most
capable member.” (Alfred Adler – Understanding Human Nature p126).
The pressures of being the only child can be enormous, the attention and
pampering he can receive from his parents can make the child spoilt so that he
subsequently demands and expects the same from others. He too may become
arrogant with a grown up view of life as his parents are his only role model. In
short, he may have no self reliance.
The role parents play is vital. All children at an early age see the mother doing
laborious tasks and she is there constantly for the child‘s every need. The father on
the other hand is money maker, decision taker and head of the family. The girl
child may feel subservient and the boy child may have an inflated sense of
importance. This may be part of the answer why women are taken for granted and
so many adolescent girls lack confidence. Children by the age of five will have
developed a perception of life and their own inadequacies. This will affect his
thinking and what he does in life. Lifestyle.
Private logic, the persons inner belief system, is based on biased-apperception
rather than common sense. This is unique to the individual. It is the glue which
bonds the inferiority, the behaviour and the fantasy goals. It is the interior world of
the individual that works along the mistaken principles of being right. It is security
without security. Utopia on tap, but realistically destructive. Private logic is the
motivating force in unrealistic goals – teleology, the fictive goals that people set to
compensate for their feelings of inferiority.
Unrealistic goals are the sign that the person is not operating on a horizontal plain.
The client presenting himself for therapy may have symptoms such as an
obsessive compulsive disorder, lack of confidence, recurring dreams, fatigue,
stress and at its most extreme paranoia and hallucinations. “We may conclude
from our discussion that hallucinations appear at that moment when psychic
tension is at its greatest and in circumstances in which one fears that the
attainment of one’s goal is impossible.” (Alfred Adler – Understanding Human
Nature p54). The client is now on a vertical plain of inferiority and superiority. He
may lack social interest or be unable to identify with his fellow human beings and
will be unable to fulfil the three life tasks of work, friendship and love.
It may be realistic to use a client who is addicted to gambling as an example. After
hearing the presenting symptoms and the effect it is having on the client it may
then be worthwhile to do a lifestyle assessment. Questions being asked in a
respectful manner may be on his own self concept, work, friendship, relationships,
family constellation, and religious beliefs. The therapist would then look for
unrealistic goals by asking what would be different without the symptoms. The
therapist would then move on to the client’s earliest memory, life goals, dreams
(factory of emotions), ultimate goal and, having earlier built up a relationship with
the client, any secret goals, the effect it has on others and the benefits of the
problem; the consequences if it continues and the triggers and activities towards it.
It may transpire that the client’s earliest memory is telling his father that he is
going to be a millionaire as a result of being doubted by him. In later years when
the client has not achieved what his private logic has dictated, the symptom of
gambling may come to the fore particularly if the father has asked his son to pick
some winners in a race meeting – and he hasn’t.
On explanation of these facts and asking the client to help the therapist come to a
supposition, this will help to re-orientate the client. “Private logic once it is
verbalized begins to lose its strength. The over generalizations, over
simplifications and unrealistic ideas can be challenged. Is it reasonable to
expect…?,Is this really how people are? Is it realistic to expect always to be…?”
(Jenny Clifford – Individual Therapy p97). The therapist must endeavour to
dismantle the clients private logic and seek the client’s support in so doing. The
therapist must try to “corner” the private logic and focus attention directly on it
and not be misled by alibis such as “I gamble because it gives me an interest” or
cheap tricks which allow the client to blame or use others in his quest for glory.
The clients private logic may have a steadfast belief that he can and will beat the
bookmakers. For the therapist to present this belief back to the client in the form
of analogies may be helpful.
Dismantling the client’s private logic will be difficult and may seem easier for the
therapist to bore through a brick wall with a nail file, but with patience,
understanding and resolution the private logic will begin to crumble. Adler likened
it to “spitting in the client’s soup.” They may well still drink it but will never taste
the same again. During this vital part of therapy the client may feel a little
bewildered and bemused, but by keeping the conversation pertinent the client will
experience a realization of profound proportions. The client will then be
encouraged to catch themselves performing the unwanted behaviour with what
Adler called “aha!” experiences. Assignments and record keeping can then be
used to help the client gain insight and glimpse the truth. For a client resistant to
change, paradoxical intention may be used to increase the unwanted behavioural
patterns, i.e. sickening the client. Common sense will then appear and the therapist
can encourage and bolster this, thus enabling the client to become a successful
integrated member of today’s society.
Another example on the psyche defending itself from not achieving the final
fictive goal is agoraphobia. This literally means fear of the market place. The
sufferer will have difficulty moving into open spaces with ease. The majority of
those suffering from agoraphobia will be women as their life is more conducive to
the condition inasmuch that many women spend much of their time at home. Men
may also suffer from it but this can be known as “city bound executive syndrome”.
This means that the parameters of the city restrict the sufferers movements. He
may refuse promotion if his work entails moving out of his city on a daily or
permanent basis. This in itself is interesting, and makes the writer wonder about
society in general.
Agoraphobia may be accompanied by the anxiety attack: extrasystoles
(palpitations), shortness of breath, trembling hands, tightness across the chest,
blurred vision, lump in the throat, dry mouth, a feeling of suffocation, nausea and
diarrhoea. These are the alarming symptoms; what are the causes? The sufferer,
not having achieved his fictive goal that private logic has dictated, will then have
the need for attention, to dominate and manipulate others. He can then withdraw
into his domain where he feels in control, important and where his family can look
after him. He has achieved “superiority” but at the cost of these debilitating and
frightening symptoms. The false belief system has triumphed. He is in his safety
zone. He will claim he needs help but will not ask for it, he is petrified of losing
face and being found out. “Fear of falling (which simply indicates to us that they
have an exalted opinion of themselves) is a symptom of this attitude. In the
pathological forms of fear, the same goals of power and superiority may appear.
for many people anxiety is an obvious device to compel someone to be close to
them and take care of them. Under such circumstances, no-one can leave the room
in case the sufferer becomes anxious again!” (Alfred Adler – Understanding
Human Nature p191/192). Again the same levels of understanding. respectfulness
and resilience are needed from the therapist to be able to challenge the individual’s
private logic and to help.
It is a testimony to Adler that out of his own insecurities and inferiorities that he
was able to teach society and therapists alike to diagnose, treat and successfully
re-orientate the sufferer back into society so that they themselves can stand up and
re-educate people in much the same way Adler has done. The concept of private
logic in a person and the way in which it can dictate a person’s lifestyle is of
enormous significance and it is the writer’s opinion that his whole treatment and
understanding of human nature is workable, accurate, unique and successful.
“Adler’s theory of personality provides Adlerian therapists with a complete
understanding of all human behaviour. The practice of Adlerian therapists is varied
but always based on the foundation of a holistic socio-teleological view of people.
Much of Adler’s Individual Psychology has permeated other approached to
psychotherapy and counselling; many of his ideas are incorporated into other
people’s theories without acknowledgement to Adler. Adlerian theory appears to
have widespread acceptance and relevance to students of human behaviour.”
(Jenny Clifford – Individual Therapy p99).
Natural inferiority is inevitable and healthy as we are all vulnerable to rejection
and being hurt, but the love and affection we receive from the family plays an
active part in building up our confidence and self esteem. Adler has provided a
common sense workable therapeutic approach that can be used for certain
conditions. However the writer is of the belief that for clients who have been
abused as children or been through a traumatic experience as a youngster the
Adlerian approach alone would not be enough to help that person. As an adjunct –
yes, but other approaches may have to be brought in to help the whole person. The
client may need regression or psychoanalysis and the opportunity to go back to
release pent up emotions of anger, hate and anxiety. Once the repression has been
released and abreaction achieved then the behaviour that the repressed incident
had caused would have to be tackled carefully. For example a woman in her
thirties who presents herself for therapy and informs the therapist that she is
overweight, depressed and making herself vomit, taking laxatives and is so self
conscious that she cannot leave the house, may then proceed to share with the
therapist that she had been sexually abused as a child, and now suffers horrific
nightmares. The therapist who wholeheartedly put his faith in the Adlerian
approach would be found wanting. The prime mover in the women’s condition
would have to be tackled first by using a Freudian approach to go back to the
initial incident and releasing the emotions. The Adlerian approach could then be
used to dismantle the remnants of the symptoms. It is a great shame that Freud and
Adler fell out as their theories combined are excellent.
For Adler to specifically attribute agoraphobia and anxiety as a cry for attention
based purely on inferiority smacks of inflexibility. The writer hopes the above
example will show that being fearful of leaving the safety of the home is not
purely specific to inferiority as Adler views it. Indeed anxiety and agoraphobia
may transpire in other ways. The client may have suffered a debilitating physical
illness, operation, divorce, bereavement, increase pressure in the work
environment, genetic or hormonal imbalance and his body may have become so
aroused – sensitized – to fear that nerve ends may transmit fear flashes all too
easily, this resulting in the anxiety attack. The client may become fearful of the
state that he is in, fearful of dying, fainting, and ,of course, making a fool of
himself. The writer does not believe that this will be due to an inner belief of
importance and a fictitious claim for attention. Is it not human to be so fearful of
palpitations, weak legs, difficulty swallowing, inability to take a deep breath and
the mind going blank? Would anyone not be fearful of making a fool of himself?
How human it is.
The client is afraid of the state he is in and because his body has done so many
frightening things to him in the past it will be natural to be fearful and
apprehensive of it doing it again, particularly when his natural reaction is to fight
and try and overcome such feelings even although he makes them worse. But he
does not know that. Indeed his private logic may dictate that he will never get
better again, and that must be dismantled with explanation of how his nervous
The involuntary nervous system consists of two parts: sympathetic and
parasympathetic. Fear begins as an impulse in our brain which excites nerves to
stimulate skin and organs to bring on the symptoms of fear: dry mouth, shallow
breathing etc. The sympathetic nerves do this by means of adrenalin. Being afraid
of the state that he is in stimulates more adrenalin which equals more anxiety,
exhaustion and depression. He adds stress to stress and maintains sensitization.
Without fear the body would recover. The cycle must be broken with
enlightenment and understanding of how to accept the panic.
In today’s society there is competition, one-upmanship and greed and an ever
increasing emphasis put on material goods. Television and magazines are just
some of the mediums that extol the virtues of being slim, happy, confident and
finding the compatible partner of your choice. At school we are taught subjects
such as English, arithmetic etc. If teaching in self discipline and a respect for other
people was a major part of the curriculum society as a whole would benefit. How
often have we heard or read of a person being attacked in broad daylight and no-
one helped, or of the rich tycoon or famous celebrity who is deeply unhappy.
Nervous breakdown is common and the pressures of work are prime motivating
factors of it. This can affect anyone in any job; bankers, teachers, salesman,
tradesmen, doctors – everyone will know of someone who has suffered severe
stress. It is the writer’s belief that people as individuals are understanding and
caring, but this changes when put in the safety of the group. The fall-out of office
politics and the background of back-biting and sniping are universal. The need to
conform in the armed services, police force, fire brigade etc is expected a macho
image is expected of its members. The individual who stands up for what he
believes in will most probably find that this is a major hindrance to his career.
The pressure pot of expectations, demands and targets to meet is unhealthy. All of
this directed towards success. Stress is rife. “In our civilization there is one thing
that does seem to have magical powers, and that is money. Many people believe
that you can do anything you like with money. it is not strange, therefore, that in
their ambition and vanity they are obsessed with money and property. In this light,
their ceaseless striving for the acquisition for worldly goods becomes
comprehensible, although to us it seems almost pathological…,Today the
possession of power is so closely allied with the possession of money and
property, and the striving for the money and property seems so natural in our
civilization, that no one pays any attention to the fact that many of the individuals
who spend their lives chasing after gold are spurred on merely by their vain desire
for God-like power.” (Alfred Adler – Understanding Human Nature p178.)
Healthy competition is necessary as we all strive to fulfil our true potential and be
the most efficient we can. Adler recognised this desire in human beings and where
it could become unhealthy. He, himself, is testimony to human beings overcoming
adversity and then providing a very practical and effective therapy.
It is the writer’s opinion that Adler’s definition of private logic is brilliant and that
this in itself provides the therapist with a considerable weapon in his therapeutic
arsenal. The Adlerian approach orientates the client towards being more effective
in work, friendship and love, which, of course, are the rudiments of success in
society. Such an approach may be difficult for the already “successful” client to
appreciate because this challenges his already “successful” private logic. Providing
the client with a realization of his unwanted behaviour has been criticised as being
“lightweight.” Such criticism is, in the writer’s opinion, unjust. On the contrary if
used properly and with correct timing it is extremely effective and goes a very
considerable way in shattering the compulsive element. Change can then begin.
With mutual respect and encouragement the client can then become a successfully
integrated member of today’s society, and by showing the client Adler’s model of
psychological disturbance, bring about a lasting change and re-education of him
and his family.