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In this article, we will look at Individual Psychology, as developed by Albert Adler. We will look at its history, concepts, influence, practical application, and also review its potentiality for individual transcendence.

Individual psychology

Individual psychology is a branch of psychology that was founded by Alfred Adler, an Austrian psychiatrist who broke away from Freud‘s psychoanalytic school. It focuses on the holistic view of the person, their striving for superiority and power, their social interest and their unique life-style (Britannica, 2022).

According to individual psychology, human behaviour is motivated by a feeling of inferiority that stems from physical or psychological limitations, and the goal of therapy is to help the client develop insight into their mistaken life-style and foster cooperation with others (Wikipedia, 2022).

Adler’s disagreement with Freud

One of the main disagreements between Adler and Freudian psychology was the role of sexuality in personality development. Adler rejected Freud’s emphasis on the libido and the Oedipus complex, and argued that human behaviour was driven by a striving for superiority and social interest (Adler, 2013b).

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Adler believed that feelings of inferiority, which arise from early childhood experiences, motivate individuals to overcome their perceived weaknesses and achieve their goals. He also emphasized the importance of social relationships, especially within the family, in shaping one’s personality and style of life (Adler, 2013a).

For example, Adler proposed that birth order had a significant influence on how children cope with inferiority and develop their social interest.

Adler also differed from Freud in his approach to psychotherapy. He advocated for a collaborative and respectful relationship between the therapist and the client, and focused on helping the client identify and modify their irrational beliefs, unrealistic goals, and maladaptive behaviours. He aimed to foster the client’s self-awareness, self-acceptance, and social interest, and to encourage them to contribute to the common good of humanity (Adler, 2013c).

History of individual psychology

Individual psychology has its roots in the early 20th century, when Adler started to question some of Freud’s assumptions about human nature, such as the primacy of sex and libido, the determinism of childhood experiences and the unconscious conflicts.

Adler proposed that humans are more influenced by their social environment, their future goals and their creative potential. He also emphasized the importance of equality, democracy and social justice in human relations (New World Encyclopedia, 2022).

Adler proposed that human behaviour is motivated by social interests and a striving for superiority or self-improvement. He also emphasized the role of childhood experiences, especially feelings of inferiority, in shaping the personality and the life-style of individuals (Adler, 1956).

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Adler also proposed that the ego, or the conscious self, is not a passive recipient of biological and environmental influences, but an active agent that strives for mastery, success, and completion (Adler, 2013b). He called this striving for superiority the primary motivation of human behaviour.

Another psychologist who contributed to individual psychology was Karen Horney, who challenged some of Adler’s assumptions and proposed that neurotic behaviour is caused by basic anxiety stemming from interpersonal relationships. She also introduced the concepts of moving toward, moving against, and moving away from people as coping strategies (Horney, 1950).

A third psychologist who influenced individual psychology was Carl Rogers, who developed a humanistic approach that focused on the self-concept and the conditions of worth that affect the congruence between the real self and the ideal self. He also emphasized the importance of unconditional positive regard, empathy, and genuineness in facilitating personal growth (Rogers, 1951).

Some examples of how these psychologists applied their theories to individual psychology are:

Adler used techniques such as lifestyle assessment, early recollections, and encouragement to help clients overcome feelings of inferiority and find a sense of belonging in society (Carlson et al., 2006).

Horney used techniques such as free association, dream analysis, and self-analysis to help clients identify and modify their neurotic needs and tendencies (Horney, 1945).

Rogers used techniques such as reflective listening, paraphrasing, and summarizing to help clients express their feelings and thoughts without judgment and to discover their own solutions (Rogers, 1957).

Individual psychology has influenced many other schools of psychology and psychotherapy, such as humanistic psychology, existential psychology, cognitive-behavioural therapy and family therapy. Some of Adler’s other followers and collaborators include Rudolf Dreikurs and Erich Fromm.

Individual psychology is still practised today by counsellors, educators and social workers who apply its principles to various settings and populations (New World Encyclopedia, 2022).

Key concepts

Some of the key concepts of individual psychology are:

Lifestyle: This is the unique way that an individual pursues their goals and copes with life’s challenges. It is shaped by early childhood experiences, family dynamics, and social influences. Lifestyle assessment is a technique used by Adlerian therapists to understand the client’s core beliefs, values, and strategies (Simply Psychology, n.d.).

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.

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.

Birth order: This suggested that the position of a child in the family influences their personality development. He suggested that firstborn children tend to be more responsible, authoritarian, and conservative, while second-born children tend to be more rebellious, competitive, and independent. He also claimed that only children tend to be more pampered, spoiled, and self-centred (Mosak et al., 1999).

Inferiority and Superiority: Adler believed that all humans have a natural feeling of inferiority that stems from their physical and psychological limitations. This feeling motivates them to strive for superiority, which is the realization of their full potential. However, some individuals may develop an inferiority complex or a superiority complex, which are maladaptive ways of dealing with inferiority feelings (Britannica, n.d.).

Compensation and Overcompensation: These are the processes by which individuals try to overcome their real or perceived inferiority by developing their own abilities or emphasizing other aspects of themselves. Compensation is a healthy and natural reaction, while overcompensation is an exaggerated and unrealistic response that often leads to aggression or withdrawal (Simply Psychology, n.d.). Adler believed that compensation can be either positive or negative, depending on whether it leads to a useful or uncooperative life-style. For example, a person who feels physically weak may compensate by becoming a successful athlete or a tyrannical leader.

Social Interest: This is the innate tendency of humans to cooperate and contribute to the common good. Adler considered it as the criterion for mental health and the ultimate goal of individual psychology. Social interest reflects the degree to which an individual feels connected to others and society (SpringerLink, 2020).

The ego: According to Adler’s individual psychology, the ego is the whole self or personality that strives for superiority or self-improvement (Britannica, 2023). The ego is not a separate entity from the conscious awareness, but rather the expression of the individual’s unique style of life or lifestyle (Adler, 2013b). The style of life is shaped by the individual’s creative power and social interest, as well as by the early experiences of inferiority and compensation (Simply Psychology, 2023). For example, a person who felt neglected by his parents may develop a style of life that seeks attention and recognition from others, or a person who felt weak and helpless may develop a style of life that aims for power and domination. The ego is thus the manifestation of the individual’s goals and ways of striving for them, which can be either healthy or unhealthy depending on the degree of social interest and reality testing involved.

An example of individual psychology in practice is the use of early recollections (ER) technique, which involves asking the client to recall their earliest memories. These memories are not analysed for their factual content, but for the subjective meaning that the client assigns to them. ERs can reveal the client’s lifestyle, world-view, coping strategies, and goals (Simply Psychology, n.d.). For instance, a client who recalls being neglected by their parents may have developed a belief that they are unworthy of love and attention, which may affect their current relationships.

Hypothetical therapy session

One way to explain how an individual psychology therapy session would work is to use a hypothetical example of a client who is experiencing anxiety and low self-esteem.

  • The therapist would use a cognitive-behavioural approach, which is based on the idea that thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are interconnected and can be modified to improve psychological wellbeing.
  • The therapist would start by establishing rapport and trust with the client, and then explore the client’s presenting problem and goals for therapy.
  • The therapist would ask the client to describe specific situations that trigger anxiety and negative self-talk, and help the client identify the underlying beliefs and assumptions that fuel these reactions. For example, the client might say: “I get nervous when I have to speak in front of a group of people because I think they will judge me and think I’m stupid.”
  • The therapist would then challenge these beliefs and assumptions by asking the client to provide evidence for and against them, and to consider alternative perspectives. For example, the therapist might say: “What makes you think that people will judge you and think you’re stupid? Have you ever received any feedback that supports this idea? How do you know what other people are thinking? Could there be other reasons why they might look at you or react in a certain way?”
  • The therapist would also help the client develop coping skills and strategies to manage anxiety and improve self-esteem.
  • For example, the therapist might teach the client relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, to use before or during stressful situations.
  • The therapist might also help the client practice positive self-talk, such as replacing negative thoughts with more realistic and affirming ones. For example, the client might say: “I can do this. I have prepared well for this presentation. I have something valuable to share with others.”
  • The therapist would encourage the client to apply these skills and strategies in real-life situations, and to monitor their progress and outcomes.
  • The therapist would provide feedback and support along the way, and help the client celebrate their achievements and overcome their setbacks.

The goal of this type of therapy session is to provide therapeutic change in the client by helping them change their maladaptive thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, and by enhancing their self-efficacy and wellbeing.

According to Beck (2011), cognitive-behavioural therapy is one of the most effective forms of psychotherapy for a wide range of psychological problems, such as anxiety, depression, phobias, eating disorders, and personality disorders.

Benefits of individual psychology

One of the benefits of this conceptual application is that it allows for a holistic and optimistic view of human nature, which recognizes the potential for growth and adaptation. Adler also stressed the importance of social interest, or the feeling of belonging and contributing to the common good, as a measure of mental health and a guide for ethical action (Adler, 2013a).

Another benefit is that it acknowledges the influence of early childhood experiences, especially feelings of inferiority or superiority, on the formation of personality and the development of a unique lifestyle, or a consistent pattern of coping with challenges (Mosak et al., 1999).

Self‐Transcendence and individual psychology

Individual psychology, as developed by Alfred Adler, is a psychological approach that focuses on the individual’s sense of inferiority and striving for superiority, as well as the social and creative aspects of human life. According to individual psychology, people are motivated by their goals and purposes, and they seek to overcome their perceived limitations and achieve their ideal self.

However, individual psychology may not account for the phenomenon of self-transcendence, which is the expansion or evaporation of personal boundaries and the connection with something greater than the self. self-transcendence can be seen as a spiritual or existential dimension of human development, which may involve experiences such as considering oneself an integral part of the universe, feeling a sense of oneness with all living beings, or transcending one’s ego and personal concerns.

Some psychologists, such as Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow, and C. Robert Cloninger, have proposed that self-transcendence is a higher stage or aspect of human growth that goes beyond Self-actualization, which is the realization of one’s full potential. self-transcendence may also be related to positive outcomes such as wellbeing, meaning in life, altruism, and wisdom.

To illustrate this point, let us consider some quotes from prominent psychologists who have discussed self-transcendence:

“Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.” (Abraham Maslow).

self-transcendence is an identification of the self with the universe conceived as a unitive whole… self-transcendence may be described as acceptance, identification, or spiritual union with nature and its source.” (C. Robert Cloninger).

These quotes suggest that self-transcendence involves a shift from a self-centred perspective to a more holistic and universal one, which may require letting go of one’s ego and its desires. Individual psychology may not facilitate this shift, but rather maintain or enhance the ego’s sense of separateness and superiority.

Therefore, individual psychology may not be sufficient or beneficial for someone who wishes to transcend their ego and attain a higher level of consciousness. Individual psychology may be useful for helping people cope with their feelings of inferiority and achieve their personal goals, but it may not address the more profound questions of existence and the ultimate purpose of life. Individual psychology may also reinforce the ego‘s attachment to its own identity and world-view, rather than fostering openness and flexibility.

For example, if we review this sentence from earlier in the article:

“According to Adler’s individual psychology, the ego is the whole self or personality that strives for superiority or self-improvement (Britannica, 2023). The ego is not a separate entity from the conscious awareness, but rather the expression of the individual’s unique style of life or lifestyle (Adler, 2013b).”

This seems to be describing what is known as the egoic state, in which the self-concept is identified with the ego and its desires, fears, and attachments. The egoic state is characterized by a sense of separation, inferiority, limitation conflict and the false self, both within oneself and with others.

However, the self-transcendent state is marked by a sense of unity, freedom, and harmony, both within oneself and with the world. In the self-transcendent state, the ego is transcended: The self-concept begins to see itself as something separate to the ego, and that the ego needs to be taught how to reflect the true-self in its automatic responses and cues.

Therefore, Adler’s perspective seems to have a tendency to become bogged down in trying to achieve a “perfect” egoic state and completely misses the point that this is not possible because it would continue the suppression of the individuals’ shadow aspects. meaning the underlying issues that resulted in the inferiority complex that Adler was looking to solve, would tend to return, and in some cases would be highly likely to get worse. Hence, the need for the individual to find a therapy that would allow them to transcend their ego rather than apply a “sticky plaster”.

For example, Jung (1964) argued that “the shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality” (p. 8) and that it cannot be resolved by simply striving for superiority or perfection. He suggested that the shadow must be confronted and integrated into the conscious personality; otherwise it will manifest itself in destructive ways.

Similarly, Maslow (1971) proposed that Self-actualization, which he defined as “the full use and exploitation of talents, capacities, potentialities, etc.” (p. 22), requires transcending the ego and embracing one’s true nature.  He criticized Adler’s approach as being too focused on compensating for one’s weaknesses and ignoring one’s strengths. He also warned that “the danger of overcompensation is always present” (p. 23) and that it can lead to narcissism, arrogance, or alienation.

Therefore, these examples illustrate how Adler’s perspective may fail to address the root causes of one’s psychological problems and may even exacerbate them by reinforcing one’s ego defences.

In conclusion, individual psychology is a valuable psychological theory that can help people understand themselves and others better, but it may not encompass the full spectrum of conscious experience. It may also be limited or counterproductive for someone who wants to transcend their ego and connect with a higher reality. self-transcendence is a phenomenon that requires a different approach and understanding than individual psychology can offer.


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