What are the principles of Adlerian Psychology?

Apr 24, 20245 min
principles of adlerian psychology

When you think of psychology, who is a famous psychologist that comes to your mind?

The name of Freud probably pops up. Sigmund Freud's name has been part of a cultural phenomenon with not just psychology, but graduates from various backgrounds including literature students also reading about his work. 

The principles of Adler psychology were formulated by Alfred Adler, a close contemporary to Freud. Born in Vienna, Austria, Adler's insights into the dynamics of the human mind continue to influence mental health therapy practices and academic discourse to this day. Central to his legacy is the development of Individual Psychology, a framework that emphasizes the uniqueness of each individual and their striving for significance and superiority in life.

Adler Individual Psychology: 4 Key Concepts

At the heart of Adler's Individual Psychology is the belief that each individual is unique and strives for significance within their social environment. Unlike Freud, who emphasized the role of unconscious drives and conflicts in influencing behavior, Adler focused on conscious goals and motivations, particularly the pursuit of superiority and personal fulfillment.

Let’s take the example of Ishita here to understand these differences. Ishita is a 37-year-old who came into therapy for anxiety and insecurity.

From Freud's viewpoint or the psychoanalytical perspective, one might interpret the individual's anxiety stemming from unresolved conflicts and repressed desires from early childhood experiences. A Freudian therapist might delve into the person's unconscious mind, exploring potential traumatic events or unresolved issues with parental figures that could be contributing to their anxiety. They might focus on uncovering unconscious motives and desires through techniques like free association and exploring the individual's early childhood memories.

On the other hand, a therapist following Adlerian principles might approach Ishita’s case from a different angle. They might view the individual's anxiety as stemming from feelings of inferiority and a lack of self-esteem. They would likely emphasize the importance of social dynamics and the individual's subjective perception of their place in the social world. From childhood, the therapist might explore the person's early experiences of striving for superiority or feelings of inadequacy, perhaps within the context of family dynamics or social relationships. They might focus on helping Ishita develop a sense of belonging and competence, encouraging them to engage in behaviors that foster social interest and help with creating goals that can lead to feeling superior about self. 

While the theoretical approaches of both Freud and Adler would acknowledge the presence of anxiety in the individual, their respective theories and approaches would lead them to different interpretations and interventions. A Freudian therapist would tend to focus on unconscious conflicts and drives (the past), while a therapist working with the principles of Adler would focus more on conscious feelings of inferiority and the individual's social context (the future).

1. Inferiority and Superiority Complexes

Adler posited that as infants we are all born into the world with feelings of helplessness and inferiority, which drive individuals to strive for superiority and mastery over their environment. As infants none of us are born with the ability to walk which makes us dependent on our parents to survive but every infant strives to learn to walk to gain control over the environment. Infants are actively engaging in efforts to overcome this initial sense of helplessness and inferiority. These feelings of inferiority can motivate individuals at every stage in their lives to overcome challenges and achieve their goals. However, when individuals experience excessive feelings of inferiority or inadequacy, they may develop a superiority complex as a compensatory mechanism. For instance, consider a child who grows up in a family where they constantly feel overshadowed by their older, more accomplished siblings. To compensate for these feelings of inferiority, the child might develop a superiority complex in adulthood, striving to outperform others in their career, relationships, or social status. They may engage in behaviors designed to demonstrate their superiority, such as boasting about their achievements or belittling others.

2. Birth Order

Do you have siblings or are you a single child? As the eldest child have you ever been told that “you should be more responsible” or as the younger one, been able to be creative with your choices much more than your elder sibling?

Building upon his own experiences as a second-born child, Adler explored the impact of birth order on personality development. He suggested that birth order dynamics, including parental expectations and sibling relationships, contribute to the formation of individual personality traits and behavioural patterns. Firstborns are more likely to be goal-driven, ambitious and learn to conform to the rules of society. Middle Borns are the peace-makers and good at negotiations. Youngest borns are often considered to be immature, get the most attention from parents, and are considered to be more socially adept than any other children in the birth order. While a complaint of an only child is often not having siblings to play and bond with, Adler believed that only children in the family become equipped with skills of independence, taking responsibility, and being good with social skills. These are observations from his experience, not generalizations with every child. 

social Interest according to adler's theory

3. Social Interest

Central to Adler's theory is the concept of social interest, which refers to an individual's innate inclination toward cooperation, social connectedness, and community feeling. Adler believed that fostering social interest is essential for mental health and contributes to the well-being of both the individual and society as a whole.

4. Lifestyle

Adler introduced the concept of lifestyle, which refers to an individual's unique pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours shaped by their subjective perceptions and interpretations of life experiences. Our lifestyle reflects our fundamental attitudes toward ourselves, others, and the world around us, influencing our choices and actions.

Book recommendation based on the principles of Adler's psychology

Unless you are a psychology student, you don’t have to consume the principles of Adler's psychology in a theoretical manner. Here is a book I read a few years ago which is based on the principles of Adler's psychology. The Courage to Be Disliked is a transformative self-help book written by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga, based on the teachings of Alfred Adler. The book presents a dialogue between a philosopher and a young man, exploring Adlerian principles in a conversational format. Adler believed that individuals have the power to change their perspectives and behaviours, regardless of past experiences or external circumstances. Similarly, the book advocates for taking responsibility for one's own life and choices, rather than blaming external factors or past events. 

Additionally, exploring Adler's principles can be effectively demonstrated through therapeutic practice, particularly within the framework of psychodynamic therapy. At Mave Health, our therapists specialize in psychodynamic approaches, encompassing various post-Freudian psychoanalytic theories, including Adlerian principles. Through therapy, clients can directly experience and apply Adler's concepts, gaining insight into their own behaviours and motivations within a supportive environment.


Alfred Adler's contributions to psychology have left an enduring legacy, challenging conventional wisdom and offering a humanistic perspective on the complexities of the human psyche. His emphasis on the individual's innate striving for significance and social connection continues to inspire psychologists and individuals alike to pursue personal growth, meaningful relationships, and a deeper understanding of the human experience.


Allen, T. W. (1972). the individual psychology of alfred adler: an item of history and a promise of a revolution. The Counseling Psychologist, 3(1), 3-24. 

McCluskey MC. Revitalizing Alfred Adler: An Echo for Equality. Clin Soc Work J. 

Psychodynamic Psychology. (2020, Sept 16). Introduction to Alfred Adler's Individual Psychology [Video] Youtube.

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Anvita Sethi
Psychologist | Trauma Informed Therapist | M.Sc. Clinical Psychology