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Updated on June 3, 2012

ALFRED ADLER (1870-1937)

Alfred Adler was another psychoanalyst who was initially a disciple of Sigmund Freud, but later broke away from the group. Like Freud he was born in Vienna and was an ophthalmologist by training. In 1902 he joined the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, which Freud had instituted but differed with him on what influences the shaping of human personality. Adler therefore broke away in 1911 and formulated a new theory, which later became Individual Psychology.

Whilst Freud placed great importance on the role of sexuality on personality development, Adler believed that it is the feeling of inferiority and the compensatory striving for power and superiority, which mould it. During childhood there is a sense of inferiority and inadequacy owing to the powerlessness of the child as the child is small and weak. These feelings may be either real or imagined and the child tries to compensate it. Adler therefore places importance on understanding the family constellation in order to identify the root of the problem. For example the first child in a family may suddenly feel dethroned when a sibling is born. How the child adapts and what is the family’s response determine the personality development of the person. Adler’s own childhood may have contributed to the formulation of his new theory. Adler had an older brother who was healthier and stronger and which made him feel insecure. People in such situations try to overcome these through compensations. He or she may become more competitive and aggressive and try to make up for their inadequacy. If we succeed in developing our abilities, it would lead to a positive outcome. Problem arises when a person overcompensates in an attempt to conceal the inferiority complex. This would lead to distortion of self-image and result in psychological problems.

Adler therefore placed importance on the ‘style of life’ of person to find the clues for the onset of psychological disorders in the personality. The mother incidentally plays a critical role in the psychological development of a child. She should refrain from playing favorites nor indulge in pampering as this could hamper the development of the child.

Like Freud, Adler used dream analysis, but this was to probe a person’s earliest memories in order to unravel the complications that may have developed rather than interpret the sexual nature of dreams. Adler’s method was to make the patient realize his mistaken style of life and to make adjustments in occupational, marital and social aspect of life. Though many believe that Adler’s idea of the ‘will for power’ smacks of Nietzsche’s influence, Adler’s focus was different. Though Adler’s untimely death in 1937 due to heart attack temporarily thwarted the growth of his ideas, the works of people like Rudolph Dreikurs remind that it has still a strong following who are known as NeoAdlerians.


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  • yoginijoy profile image


    6 years ago from Mid-Atlantic, USA

    Interesting topic. I quoted Adler extensively in my dissertation. He is a worthy psychologist and his theory of how an inferiority complex is overcome is quite profound. Voting up!


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