Alfred Adler's Contribution to Psychotherapy
Alfred Adler’s contribution to psychoanalysis is predominately phenomenological and goal oriented. Adler is essentially inspired by a social approach to psychology and therefore highlights the individual’s value system that underpins their beliefs and perceptions, in this way it is very close to Constructivism.
Adler like the Constructivists whom he influenced believed that an individual’s behaviour is largely associated to their upbringing and education, Adler wrote (Ansbacher & Ansbacher 1964:182/183) “I am convinced that a person’s behaviour springs from his opinion. We should not be surprised at this, because our senses do not receive actual facts, but merely a subjective image of them, a reflection of the external world. In considering the structure of a personality, the chief difficulty is that its unity, its particular style of life and goal, is not built on objective reality but on the subjective view the individual takes of the facts of life. Each person organizes himself according to his personal view of things, and some views are sound, some less sound”.
Adler coined the term “family constellation” in order to explore the impact of birth order, family values, role models and gender on the child as they grow up. Adler’s approach suggests that an individual learns attitudes and behavior within the family context it is the family that provides the child with a microcosm of society. According to Adler the birth order also has an impact on the individual behavior as an adult. Adler suggests also looking at other aspects of the child’s family life including how the child is treated, how the parents interact with the siblings, how siblings treat each other and a child’s abilities or disabilities. Other factors that Adler felt where important included parental role models, the family’s socio-cultural background and parenting styles which proved to be of particular interest to Constructivists. Both Adler and the Constructivists were influenced by Marxist theory.
Adler suggested that the child’s vulnerability leads to a sense of inferiority and if this is subsequently internalized in adulthood Adler believes that this may lead to a superiority complex. As an adult there is a need to compensate for this perceived inferiority, if this is exaggerated it evolves into a “superiority complex”. Adler was influenced by Nietzsche and this fits in with Nietzsche’s “Will to power” the need for the individual to assert themselves over others. However unlike Nietzsche, Adler believes that this is not always a conscious process and maintains “[…] a general goal of man […]. This goal of complete superiority, with its strange appearance at times, does not come from the world of reality. Inherently we must place it under “fictions” and “imaginations.” (Adler1973:32). The final goal of this process according to Adler is a “better adaptation”.
The “fictions” and “imaginations” are central to Adlerian theory, according to Adler the ultimate truth will always be beyond the individual, and because of this individuals formulate partial truths or constructs to make sense of their lives, reality for Adler is subjective and the individual acts in the present whilst looking at the future. Adler developed the theory of “finalism”, a teleological process, in that the fiction is projected into the future, yet despite this it influences the individual’s present, Adler’s influence on Viktor Frankl is quite apparent. Frankl a student of Adler had developed Logotherapy an essentially existential approach to a future orientated psychotherapy whereby the individual establishes meanings that are to be fulfilled in the future. Adler suggests we are unable to understand the individual without understanding that person’s fictional finalism. These ideals are of an existential nature in that they, the concept of fictional finalism according to Adler is a guiding principle as such people arrange their lives in order to justify and enable their fictional, final goal. Individuals who are healthy change their final fictions according to their circumstances, neurotic individuals however cling to the same fictional ideal. Adler writes (1925:2/3) “The essential point to be grasped psychologically and the one which interests us exclusively and practically and psychologically more than all others, is the path followed. Let me observe that if I know the goal of a person I know in a general way what will happen. […] We must remember that the person under observation would not know what to do with himself were he not oriented toward some goal. If we look at the matter more closely, we shall find the following law holding in the development of all psychic happenings: we cannot think, feel, will, or act without the perception of some goal”.
Adler’s teleological approach allowed him unburden himself of Freudian determinism and the cause and effect dyad preferred by the canonical psycho analytical approach cultivated by Freud, in so doing Adler empowered the individual, making the individual responsible for their own fate and their own choices and not the victims of quasi biological deterministic drives preferred by Freud. It is at this point that Adler shows himself as being phenomenological in approach primarily influenced by philosophers Vaihinger and Husserl the phenomenological approach is also shared by the existentialist, person centered and Gestalt approaches.
The Adlerian approach is concerned with the individuals “creative self” a process by which the individual is able to work upon their background and environment and establish themselves in society, this approach is diametrically the opposite of Freud’s determinism and can also be found in Gestalt psychotherapy. Adler, unshackled from the Freudian deterministic drives, perceives the individual as an essentially social creature who wishes to live harmoniously with his fellow man. According to Adler we all have an innate “social interest”, however it is not always cultivated or realized. Adler’s theory of social interest was to influence approaches as diverse Erich Fromm, Viktor Frankl and William Glasser. Adler suggests that if an individual consummates their innate social interest they will be emotionally successful individuals. Adler suggests individuals face three major obstacles during their life- times that require a well -developed social interest, these include occupational tasks, where the individual contributes to society, societal tasks, which includes working together with other people to benefit mankind and love and marriage which requires emotional commitment and cohabitation as a family unit. Social interest is essentially a process by which the individual is able to integrate into society. Adler’s influence therefore is clearly evident in the work of William Glasser, despite the latter being predominately cognitive-behavioural in approach. It is also visible in the neo Adlerian Erich Fromm who developed his own theories which he defined as assimilation and socialization.
Adler’s definition of “social interest” has its roots in Marxist social theory which appealed to Adler’s egalitarian approach. Adler’s theory of social interest is intrinsically connected to an individual’s style of life in that an individual’s identity evolves from their choice of life style. An individual’s life style in turn influences how the individual solves life’s problems and what aspirations they wish to achieve. A healthy style of life allows the individual to be an integrated member of society whereas a poor choice of life style usually inspired by an internalized inherent inferiority complex or by a superiority complex is according to Adler doomed to fail. This aspect of Adler’s theory was later developed by William Glasser and can also be seen in the work of Carl Rogers.
Adler suggested four types of individual according to the way they associate to social interest. These included the dominant type, who wishes to dominate others, the leaning type who expects everything from others, the avoiding type, those who fear failure and therefore do not act and finally the socially useful type a well- integrated, who is able to live in harmony with others, contributes to society and lives a productive life. Karen Horney a neo Adlerian developed this theory further by suggesting ten neurotic needs that can be manifested in the individual. By 1945, Karen Horney was able to identify ten neurotic needs in three categories in her book Our Inner Conflicts. Horney proposed a series of strategies used by neurotics to cope with other people “Horney saw these three neurotic “solutions” to basic anxiety and hostility as ideal types. As concepts, each one forms a pure configuration of motives, feelings, and behaviours uncontaminated by the others. The dependent and domineering types, for example, are diametric opposites, and the detached type opposes them both. As extremes they represent analytical concepts, not actual people, who display greater variety, complexity, and intermeshing of characteristics than the types suggest. But the analytic purity of the types permits greater theoretical insight and development” (Westkott: 1986:81). Horney like Adler also believed that the root of tension was sociocultural and not sexual as it had been for Freud. (Myers, 2007). Karen Horney in turn influenced Erich Fromm who also developed a similar theory which he developed in several works including Man for Himself and later To Have or to Be? The personality types developed by Adler and his followers prove especially interesting when viewed within the Adlerian holistic dynamic.
The term Individual Psychology (Adler, 1932) is often misinterpreted. Adler’s theory highlights the holistic nature of the individual. As such Adler employed the term “individual” to highlight the integrity of the individual when others like Freud, were promoting the fragmented and conflictual nature of the individual in the form of id, ego and superego. Adler postulated a holistic theory that proposed the individual as a product of their family unit and cultural up-bringing that influences the goal that an individual works towards (Ferguson, 2000a). With Adler we begin to notice a move from the intrapsychic (within the psyche) to the interpsychic (interpersonal) relations.