Alfred Adler was the first of Freud’s pupils to break with the master (1911). Adler rejected the sexual aetiology of neurosis and contended that feelings of inferiority were the true cause. Adler stated that Freud and his followers were misled by the ‘jargon’ of neurotic patients into believing that sex lay at the root of their difficulties. Patients, Adler held, were really expressing a compulsion in the direction of the ‘masculine goal’ by their sexual fantasies and sexual feelings. Masculinity represents strength and power in Adler’s system, and femininity symbolises weakness and inferiority. Masculine protest is common in both man and women (but especially the latter) and is a striving for power. Instead of sex, according to Adler, the search for power determines human actions and development.


Everyone develops some sense of inferiority, Adler pointed out, because he or she is born completely helpless and remains relatively weak and dependent during a long childhood. Such basic inferiority can be exaggerated by many factors including:

  • Body or organ defects (whether real or imaginary)
  • Having older and more powerful siblings
  • Parental rejection or neglect





One way to cope with feelings of inferiority is by compensatory action: gaining power to overcome the sense of weakness. This aggressive or masculine reaction often leads to considerable success in terms of reorganized achievement in some area of life, some accomplishment of power over one’s fellows.


Another way of coping with feelings of inferiority is more easily recognizable as neurotic: the submissive or feminine patterns of denial or retreat. Such retreat or denial may take the form of fantasies, psychosomatic illnesses, projections, rationalisations, denials of reality, and other defence mechanisms.


Individual psychology


Adler felt that a person’s development was conditioned by his social environment rather then by biological forces and insisted that an individual could be analysed and understood in terms of his present purposes or life goals rather then in terms of his infantile past. Adlerian analysis is undertaken in terms of each individual’s ‘life plan’ or ‘life style’. Since everyone’s lifestyle is in some ways unique, Adler came to refer to his system as ‘individual psychology’.


Once the particular life style of the individual is fully understood, the job of the therapist is to re-educate the patient to what are believed to be healthier patterns and goals. Adler emphasised that therapeutic goals of social feelings, community interests and service should replace the less desirable strivings for power.

Adlerian therapists follow Adler’s example in minimising unconscious forces and in exploring past events only insofar as they cast initial insight on the patient’s life style. Just as the unconscious and its sexual manifestations are not stressed, correspondingly less emphasis (than that of the Freudians) is placed on the importance of transference. It is only when strong feelings are displaced from significant persons in the patient’s life onto the therapist in a way that blocks therapeutic progress that the individual psychologist gives any attention to the transference phenomena.


The therapist’s job, as Adler saw it, was to help the individual to substitute realistic for unrealistic life goals and to instil social interest and feeling.


As already implied, Adler’s treatment procedures were greatly different from those he had learned from Freud. He dispensed with the couch and substituted face-to-face sitting positions. He assumed an active teaching role as therapist. He used dream interpretation largely to cast further light on present life style and future life goals. Interruptions of the patient were frequent, for Adler conceived the therapist’s responsibility to be that of pointing out self-deceptive tendencies to the patient.


Therefore, free association gave way to a therapist-directed interview. Patients were usually seen three or four times a week (compared to the Freudian five or six), and a much shorter total term of treatment then the Freudian was the general rule.