Alfred Adler

Biography of Alfred Adler

Adler was born to a Jewish family living on the outskirts of Vienna as the second of seven children. He had a lot of exposure to disease as a young child, including the death of his baby brother and his own battle with rickets. These experiences led to his decision to become a doctor, and he graduated from the University of Vienna with a medical degree in 1895. Adler specialized as an ophthalmologist for a short time before entering general practice. He chose to serve patients in a lower-income neighborhood of Vienna that was near to a circus. Many of his patients were circus performers who were born with unusual traits. One theory is that treating patients with these unique strengths and weaknesses was the origin of his work on how human beings compensate for feelings of inferiority.

Adler’s Role in Founding Psychotherapy

Sigmund Freud became Adler’s influential contemporary and colleague when they met in 1902 and began having weekly meetings with several other notable Austrian doctors. These meetings, which came to be called The Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, were the infancy of the new field of psychotherapy. Every week a member would present a paper on their own theories, and then the group would rigorously debate, discuss, and refine each other’s ideas. These notable intellectuals influenced each other to understand human nature and create a structure for talk therapy. It was during this time that Adler developed the theory of inferiority and compensation. He would later teach about the Inferiority Complex and its influence on human personalities, which became one of his most important concepts.

Adler believed that therapy should consider the person as a whole to understand their true motivations, which placed him at odds with other members of the group, most notably Freud. While he went on to play a pivotal role in developing various theories with the group, Adler eventually broke with The Vienna Psychoanalytic Society to pursue his own ideas. In 1912, he founded the Society of Individual Psychology to develop his findings on the social needs of humans and how their personalities are affected by relationships.

Adlerian Theories in the Emerging Field of Psychotherapy

Adler became very well-known for influential lectures on psychotherapy, which was only beginning to emerge as a discipline. He was able to build a flourishing school that promoted an understanding of human behavior that focused on healthy relationships. Adler believed that patient evaluation must be holistic. It should include how well the person could navigate vital spheres like their occupation, their family life, or their role in society. He also emphasized that humans have a desire to cooperate for social good and that doing so can improve their personal satisfaction and mental health. Adlerian counseling guided patients on improving their lives with practical action that increased their confidence and helped them find a positive role in their communities. Adler was also notable for not using the Freudian therapy structure of having the patient lay on a couch and not look at his therapist. Adler’s counseling setup was two chairs that allowed eye contact between patient and therapist because it created a more equalizing environment.

When World War I broke out, Adler left his work to serve as a doctor for the Austrian Army. After the war, he established several clinics throughout Austria that educated parents on child psychology. He trained parents, social workers, and teachers to create opportunities for children to learn cooperation and empowerment. During this time, Adler also promoted his influential Birth Order theory which posited that personalities were influenced by when a child was born, in comparison to any siblings. For example, the firstborn child would enjoy the full attention of his parents and become resentful after a younger sibling is born. By contrast, the youngest child would be overindulged and develop less empathy. Although modern scientific studies on this theory have been inconclusive, it continues to be used as guidance for personality insights.

During the next 20 years, Adler went on popular lecture tours all over both Europe and the United States. He was an influential speaker who promoted the value of psychology for society. Adler believed that regular people should learn the principles of psychology to understand themselves and others better. They could also make practical use of this knowledge to improve their community. Adler’s vision was to cultivate confident, community-oriented, mentally healthy individuals who could contribute to the common good. The Adlerian concept of gemeinschaftsgefühl, which means a sense of community, was the ultimate goal of his techniques. The term refers to a united society where people have compassion for each other.

Adler’s Later Years and Legacy

By the early 1930s, Adler’s Jewish heritage made him a target of Nazi Germany, and most of his clinics closed. He was forced to leave Austria and emigrated to the United States to work as a professor at the Long Island College of Medicine. He continued his work promoting Adlerian psychology by giving lectures around the world. In 1937, while Adler was in Scotland to speak, he died of a heart attack at the age of 67. The student that accompanied him on this final tour, Rudolf Dreikers, went on to found Adler University, which is an institution that trains socially responsible psychotherapy practitioners.

Modern psychology and nursing theory have incorporated many Adlerian concepts, including his emphasis on family dynamics as crucial to future mental health. Adler influenced the understanding that encouraging confidence during childhood was a preventative measure against poor mental health during adulthood. His legacy is also present in the high proportion of therapists that utilize an egalitarian counseling structure of two chairs and making eye contact. The most influential Adlerian theories relate to the practical applications of the field of psychology. There is an enduring hope that being able to understand human behavior can create healthier communities and promote social change.

Further Reading: Alfred Adler’s Books

• Understanding Human Nature (1927)
• The Science of Living (1929)
• What Life Could Mean to You (1931)
• Social Interest: A Challenge to Mankind (1933)

Books About Alfred Adler

• Adler Revisited (2012) by Jon Carlson, Michael P. Maniacci
• Adlerian Counseling: A Viable Approach for Contemporary Practice (2000) by Richard E Watts
• Why Community Works: The Use of Adler’s Individual Psychology as a Foundational Theory (2002) by Robert K. Glenn, Edwin M Keith

Online Resources

• Wikipedia
• Britannica
• Adler University

For more detailed information: Birth Order Theory