Alfred Adler

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Alfred Adler

This article investigates the life and works of Austrian Doctor and psychiatrist Alfred Adler (1870–1937), a pioneer of individual psychology, a school of thought that emphasizes the uniqueness of each person and their social relationships. Adler was one of the first to break away from Freud‘s psychoanalytic circle and develop his own theory of personality, the school of individual psychology. He was which emphasized the importance of social interest, belonging, family constellation, and birth order.

Adler believed that humans are motivated by a striving for superiority, which is driven by an inferiority complex that stems from childhood experiences of inferiority (Adler, 1930). He also proposed that personality is shaped by the individual’s perception of their place in the family and society, which he called the style of life. Adler’s theory of personality has influenced many other psychologists, such as Abraham Maslow, Albert Ellis, Rollo May, and Carl Rogers (Orgler, 1976).

Adler was born in 1870 in Vienna and suffered from various health problems as a child, which motivated him to pursue a medical career. He graduated from the University of Vienna in 1895 and initially worked as an ophthalmologist before switching to general practice. He became interested in psychiatry and joined Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic discussion group in 1902. Adler later served as the president of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, but left in 1911 due to his disagreements with Freud’s theories. He then established his own approach, which he called individual psychology, and founded the Society of Individual Psychology in 1912.

Adler made significant contributions to psychology and psychotherapy, especially in the areas of personality development, social psychology, child psychology, and education. He was one of the first psychotherapists to apply his theories to practical settings, such as schools, clinics, and workplaces. He died in 1937 in Aberdeen, Scotland, while on a lecture tour.

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Adler’s individual psychology

Adler’s theory of personality focused on the importance of feelings of belonging, social interest, family constellation, birth order, and inferiority complex. He believed that human beings are motivated by a striving for superiority, which is a desire to overcome their perceived inferiority and achieve their full potential. He also emphasized the role of social factors in shaping personality, such as the influence of parents, siblings, peers, and culture.

Adler argued that people develop a unique style of life, which is a consistent pattern of behaviour, attitudes, and goals that reflects their individual way of coping with life’s challenges. He also introduced the concept of the inferiority complex, which is a persistent feeling of inadequacy that stems from childhood experiences of inferiority or neglect. Adler suggested that people with an inferiority complex may compensate by developing an exaggerated sense of self-importance or superiority complex, or by becoming overly dependent on others for validation.

Some of the main concepts of Adler’s individual psychology are:

Inferiority complex: A feeling of inadequacy that arises from real or imagined inferiority in some aspect of life. Adler argued that this feeling can be either a source of motivation or a cause of neurosis, depending on how the individual copes with it.

Social interest: A sense of empathy and cooperation with others that reflects the individual’s awareness of being part of a larger whole. Adler considered social interest to be the criterion of mental health and the goal of therapy.

Family constellation: The structure and dynamics of the family in which the individual grows up. Adler suggested that the birth order, sibling relationships, parental attitudes, and family atmosphere influence the development of the individual’s personality and style of life.

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Style of life: The unique way that the individual pursues their goals and copes with their challenges. Adler identified four main types of style of life: dominant, getting, avoiding, and socially useful. He also recognized that each individual has a creative self that can modify their style of life in response to new situations.

Gemeinschaftsgefühl: A German term that means “community feeling” or “social interest.” Adler used this term to describe the ideal state of harmony and cooperation among human beings.

Adler’s individual psychology has contributed to the fields of psychotherapy, education, parenting, and social work. He advocated for a holistic and democratic approach to human development that respects the uniqueness and potential of each individual. However, the theory is not without its critics. We have more detail on this in our individual psychology page.

Adler on self-transcendence

One of the key concepts in Alfred Adler’s individual psychology is self-transcendence, which refers to the human tendency to seek meaning and purpose beyond the self. Adler believed that self-transcendence is a natural and healthy expression of the striving for superiority or self-improvement, which is motivated by feelings of inferiority or inadequacy (Adler, 2013b). He argued that self-transcendence can be achieved by contributing to the welfare of others and society, and by connecting with a higher power or cosmic order. According to Adler, self-transcendence is essential for psychological health and wellbeing, as it helps individuals overcome their limitations and realize their potentials.

Some examples of self-transcendence in Adler’s theory are:

Compensation and overcompensation: These are strategies to overcome real or imagined inferiorities by developing one’s own abilities or strengths. For instance, a person who feels physically weak may compensate by becoming intellectually proficient, or a person who feels socially isolated may overcompensate by becoming a charismatic leader (Adler, 2013b; Athabasca University, n.d.).

Personality typology or styles of life: These are patterns of behaviour that reflect one’s goals and ways of achieving them. Adler identified four main types: dominant, getting, avoiding, and socially useful. The socially useful type is the most adaptive and self-transcendent, as it seeks to cooperate with others and contribute to the common good (Adler, 2013b; Simply Psychology, 2023).

Birth order: This is the influence of one’s position in the family on one’s personality and development. Adler suggested that birth order affects one’s feelings of inferiority and superiority, as well as one’s coping strategies and social interests. For example, firstborn children may feel dethroned by their siblings and develop a sense of responsibility and leadership, while youngest children may feel pampered and spoiled and develop a sense of creativity and independence (Adler, 2013b; Simply Psychology, 2023).

To illustrate these points, here are some quotes from Adler’s writings:

“The meaning of life is not to be discovered only after death in some hidden, mysterious realm; on the contrary, it can be found by eating the succulent fruit of the Tree of Life and by living in the here and now as fully and creatively as we can” (Adler, 2013a, p. 17).

“Every individual represents a unity of personality, and the individual then fashions that unity. The individual is thus both the picture and the artist. Therefore, if one can change one’s concept of self, one can change the picture being painted” (Adler, 2013a, p. 28).

“We must interpret a bad temper as a sign of inferiority” (Adler, 2013a, p. 31).


Some of Adler’s books are:

Understanding Human Nature (1927), where he introduces his theory of personality and explains how people develop different styles of life based on their childhood experiences, feelings of inferiority, and goals.

The Science of Living (1927), where he applies his psychological principles to various aspects of life, such as education, marriage, parenting, work, and religion.

The Problem Child (1930), where he discusses the causes and prevention of behavioural problems in children, emphasizing the importance of cooperation, encouragement, and democratic education.

The Case of Miss R: The Interpretation of a Life Story (2005), where he presents a detailed analysis of a woman’s life history, showing how her early memories, family constellation, and birth order influenced her personality and choices.

Social Interest: Adler’s Key to the meaning of Life (1964), where he elaborates on his concept of social interest and its role in overcoming inferiority, achieving happiness, and creating a harmonious society.

Adler’s books are rich in examples and quotes from his own practice and observations, as well as from literature, philosophy, and history. He uses a clear and engaging style to convey his insights and suggestions for improving oneself and one’s relationships. His books are still relevant and inspiring for anyone who wants to understand themselves and others better.


Adler, A. (2013a). What life should mean to you. Martino Fine Books.

Adler, A. (2013b). The neurotic constitution: Outlines of a comparative individualistic psychology and psychotherapy. Martino Fine Books.

Adler, A. (1927). Understanding human nature. London: Allen & Unwin.

Adler, A. (1927). The science of living. London: Allen & Unwin.

Adler, A. (1930). The problem child. London: Allen & Unwin.

Adler, A. (2005). The case of Miss R: The interpretation of a life story. London: Routledge.

Adler, A. (1964). Social interest: Adler’s key to the meaning of life. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.

Athabasca University. (n.d.). Adler, Alfred (1870 1937).

Britannica. (n.d.). Alfred Adler. Retrieved from

New World Encyclopedia. Alfred Adler. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Orgler, H. (1976). Alfred Adler: The man and his work: Triumph over the inferiority complex. New York: Liveright.

Simply Psychology. (2023). Alfred Adler theory of individual psychology & personality.

Verywell Mind. (2023). Alfred Adler’s Career, Life, and Theory of Personality. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Alfred Adler, Retrieved from

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