Adlerian Therapy: Key Concepts & Techniques

Adlerian therapy focuses on understanding an individual’s lifestyle and social interests, examining past experiences and family dynamics, and encouraging goal-setting and positive behavior changes to overcome perceived barriers and foster a sense of belonging and purpose.

Portrait of Alfred Adler in the library with his own books. Hand drawn illustration.

Adlerian Therapy Techniques

Adlerian theory, formulated by Alfred Adler, is rooted in individual psychology. It emphasizes understanding the whole person within their social context and highlights the importance of feelings of belonging, significance, and contribution to society.

The techniques used in Adlerian therapy aim to provide insight into an individual’s lifestyle, challenge and reorient unhealthy beliefs, and encourage socially beneficial behaviors.

Adlerian therapy’s techniques emphasize collaboration, insight, self-awareness, and encouragement. By understanding and reorienting deep-seated beliefs and patterns, individuals are empowered to live more purposeful and socially connected lives.

Here’s a breakdown of the key techniques in Adlerian therapy:

  1. Engagement and Relationship Building: Establishing a strong therapeutic alliance is vital. The therapist creates an atmosphere of trust, respect, and collaboration. The individual should feel understood, encouraged, and accepted for therapy to be effective.
  2. Lifestyle Assessment: This is a hallmark of Adlerian therapy. The therapist collects data about the client’s early childhood memories, family constellation (birth order, siblings, parental relationships), and major life events. These provide insights into the client’s core beliefs, values, goals, and strategies for dealing with life’s challenges.
  3. Early Recollections (ER): The therapist asks the client to recall earliest memories. ERs are not viewed for their factual content but for the subjective meaning the individual assigns to them. These recollections offer clues about the client’s beliefs, coping strategies, and worldview.
  4. Encouragement: Adler believed that encouragement is more effective than praise. Encouragement helps people see possibilities and believe in their abilities to overcome challenges. Therapists use this technique to motivate clients, boost their self-efficacy, and foster a positive outlook.
  5. Acting “As If”: This technique involves asking the client to act “as if” they were already the person they wish to become or “as if” they had already overcome a specific challenge. This allows clients to experience different behaviors, emotions, and outcomes, facilitating change.
  6. Paradoxical Intention: This technique is used for clients stuck in a behavior pattern. The therapist might instruct them to intensify or deliberately engage in the undesired behavior. The intent is for the client to become more aware of the behavior’s absurdity or irrationality, leading them to challenge and change it.
  7. Catching Oneself: Clients are taught to recognize and catch themselves when they fall into habitual, counterproductive patterns. By recognizing these patterns as they occur, clients can choose to redirect their actions or thoughts in more constructive directions.
  8. Spitting in the Soup: This metaphorical technique makes the client’s self-defeating behaviors unpalatable by highlighting the negative consequences. For instance, if a client procrastinates, the therapist might underscore the anxiety, missed opportunities, or disappointments that arise from this behavior.
  9. Push Button Technique: This technique is used to highlight how individuals have control over their reactions and feelings. Clients are encouraged to visualize having two buttons: a negative (e.g., anger) and a positive (e.g., calm). Through practice, they learn to “press” the positive button in situations where they typically might react negatively.
  10. Task Setting and Goal Orientation: Adlerian therapists often set tasks or homework for clients to carry out between sessions. These tasks encourage self-awareness, provide opportunities to practice new behaviors, and guide individuals towards their goals.
  11. Role Playing: By acting out specific situations, clients can explore emotions, behaviors, and alternative responses. It’s an effective way to practice new strategies and behaviors before applying them in real life.
  12. Guided Imagery: Therapists guide clients through vividly imagined experiences. This can help individuals confront fears, visualize successful outcomes, or experience situations from a new perspective.
  13. Feedback and Interpretation: As the therapy progresses, therapists provide feedback and interpretations that help clients understand their behaviors, beliefs, and feelings. This insight can pave the way for change.
  14. Mirror Technique: Clients are asked to talk about themselves in the third person, as if they were talking about someone else. This distancing can allow for a more objective self-assessment and give insight into self-defeating patterns.

Stages of Adlerian Therapy

The following section summarizes the six stages of Adlerian psychotherapy developed by Stein and Edwards (2002).

These stages serve as a guide since every individual’s journey will have a slightly different path.

As Adler (2013a) put it, “Just as one cannot find two leaves of a tree absolutely identical, so one cannot find two human beings absolutely alike” (p. 102).

Since in Adlerian psychology, the goal is for the patient to feel competent and connected, the overarching goal of Adlerian psychotherapy is to help the patient overcome feelings of inferiority.

This process has three subgoals:

  1. To reduce the inferiority complex of exaggerated feelings of inferiority to a normal and helpful size, where the patient strives for significance but is not overridden;
  2. To reduce and banish the superiority complex of constant striving for superiority over others; and
  3. To promote feelings of community and equality.

Adlerian therapy focuses on understanding an individual’s lifestyle and social context. Beginning with establishing a therapeutic relationship, it proceeds to explore the client’s life history, assessing their private logic and lifestyle patterns.

Interventions aim to foster insight, challenge maladaptive beliefs, and encourage new behaviors. The goal is to empower the client to move towards a more socially oriented and purposeful life.

Phase 1: Establishing the Therapeutic Relationship

For psychotherapy to be effective, it is essential that the therapist and the client commence with a healthy working relationship. There must be a “warm, empathetic bond” which opens the door for gradual progress.

This bond is created by genuine warmth and compassion expressed by the therapist, in addition to the trust of the client in the relationship.

Phase 2: Assessment

The therapist must conduct a thorough assessment of the client in order to develop an effective therapeutic process. The analysis must identify at least the following elements:

  • Feelings of inferiority
  • Fictive goal, defined as “an imagined, compensatory, self-ideal created to inspire permanent and total relief, in the future, from the primary inferiority feeling”
  • Psychological movement, defined as “the thinking, feeling, and behavioral motions a person makes in response to a situation or task”
  • Feeling of community
  • Level and radius of activity
  • Scheme of apperception
  • Attitude toward occupation; love and sex; and other people

These assessments are done through various methods, including the projective use of early memories in addition to intelligence, career, and psychological testing.

Phase 3: Encouragement and Clarification

The process of encouraging the client helps them reduce feelings of inferiority. The therapist can start by acknowledging courage that the client has already shown, and continue by discussing small steps the client can take towards getting to a more confident place.

For instance, if the client has a limited radius of activity, the client and the therapist might discuss ways to broaden their activity.

The second crucial aspect of this phase is to clarify the client’s core feelings and beliefs regarding the self, others, and life in general. This is done using Socratic questioning.

Through this method, the therapist challenges the clients’ private logic and focuses on psychological movement around his fictive goal.

Phase 4: Interpretation

Once the therapy has reached the point where the client has made some progress, and he and the therapist have examined the meaning of his movement in relation to his goals, the therapy is ready to begin interpreting the client’s style of life.

This must only be done when the client is encouraged sufficiently, and this must be done with significant care.

Discussing and recognizing topics such as the inferiority complex can be difficult for the client, but new insight can be transformative.

Phase 5: Style of Life Redirection

Now that the client and the therapist have recognized the issues with the client’s style of life, the task becomes to redirect the style of life towards life satisfaction.

This involves reducing and productively utilizing feelings of inferiority, changing the fictive final goal, and increasing feelings of community.

This is accomplished using different methods, depending on the client’s specific needs.

Phase 6: Meta-therapy

Finally, some clients may wish to seek further personal development, towards higher values such as truth, beauty, and justice.

Towards this end, the therapist can provide stimulation for the client to become the best version of himself.

This process is challenging and requires a deep understanding of the client.

Key Concepts

Adlerian therapy, rooted in the individual psychology of Alfred Adler, centers on understanding individuals within their social contexts.

By understanding and working with these concepts, Adlerian therapy aims to foster insight, challenge unhelpful beliefs, and empower individuals to lead more fulfilling, socially integrated lives.

  1. Holism: View the person as an integrated whole, emphasizing the interconnectedness of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
  2. Social Interest: A person’s innate potential and desire to cooperate with others and contribute positively to the community.
  3. Lifestyle: An individual’s core beliefs, strategies, and patterns of behavior developed early in life, which shape how they approach life’s challenges.
  4. Inferiority and Superiority: Feelings of inferiority can drive an individual to strive for superiority or perfection. Healthy striving benefits society, while compensatory behaviors can be maladaptive.
  5. Birth Order: The position of a child in the family (first-born, middle child, youngest, etc.) influences personality and behavior.
  6. Early Recollections: Whether accurate or not, early memories provide insights into a person’s beliefs and worldview.
  7. Private Logic: An individual’s personal reasoning system, often developed in childhood, which may or may not align with common sense or societal norms.
  8. Encouragement vs. Praise: Encouragement fosters self-efficacy and resilience, while praise can be contingent on performance.
  9. Goal Orientation: Recognizing that behavior is purposeful and directed towards achieving personal goals, often formed in response to feelings of inferiority.
  10. Safeguarding Strategies: Defensive behaviors and justifications individuals use to protect their self-esteem and maintain their current lifestyle, even if it’s dysfunctional.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Riley Hoffman

Lab Manager at Yale University

B.A., Psychology, Harvard University

Riley Hoffman is the Lab Manager for the Emotion, Health, and Psychophysiology Lab at Yale University. She graduated from Harvard University in May 2023 with a B.A. in Psychology. In the future, Riley plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Psychology and/or law school. Her research interests lie at the intersection of psychology, health, and society.