Alfred Adler, M.D. (1870-1937), a Viennese physician and founder of Adlerian Psychology, believed that healthy families, classrooms, workplaces, etc., rest on a cornerstone of mutual respect. Adler was the first in the fields of psychiatry and psychology to note the great importance of our perceptions and social relationships to our own emotional and physical health and to the health of our families and communities. He stressed the crucial importance of nurturing our innate ability to cooperate as equal human beings and to encourage ourselves and one another.
Adlerian Psychology holds that human beings are goal-oriented and choice-making by nature, not mechanistically victims of instinct, drives, and environment. As social beings, our basic goal is to belong. Although heredity and environment have strong influences, to a large extent we make our own choices of how to belong.
Adlerian Psychology has a strong focus on prevention of mental disturbance and social distress through education and parenting. Much of Adler’s work was with teachers and parents who wanted to replace traditional authoritarian styles of relating to children with more democratic—but not permissive—ways. One of Adlerian Psychology’s claims to fame is the attribution to Adlerian Psychology of the concept that “separate is not equal” by an author of the social science brief for the US Supreme Court case on school desegregation. Today, many schools incorporate Adlerian-based approaches in teacher training and classroom work, and many parenting courses throughout the country are Adlerian based.
Adler’s concept of Gemeinschaftsgefühl, or a deep sense of fellowship in the human community and interconnectedness with all life, holds that human beings, as social beings, have a natural desire to contribute usefully for the good of humanity. According to Adler, a desire for social significance must focus on contribution, not on status-seeking, or one’s social relationships and one’s mental health will suffer.
Adlerian Psychology is perhaps best known for the concept of the inferiority complex. Adler viewed some behavior as overcompensation for perceived shortcomings. We sometimes make choices about how to belong on the basis of an often mistaken feeling of inferiority. Children, for example, sometimes seem to believe, mistakenly and not consciously, that they belong only when they are the center of attention. Some adults act as if they believe, mistakenly, that they belong only when they can control others, or take revenge on others, or withdraw from others (and often such misperceptions developed in early childhood).
Both the inferiority complex and overcompensation indicated to Adler an exaggerated concern with self. This self-concern could be eased by nurturing one’s innate abilities to cooperate and contribute through what Adler called the life tasks: work, intimacy, and friendship. Adlerian therapy helps to “liberate” clients by helping them move toward a clearer understanding of their unconscious, inferiority-based belief systems, or “life-styles,” and toward a clearer understanding of ways to incorporate cooperation and contribution and mutual respect in their relationships. Adlerians hope to let go of “private logic” and embrace dignity and respect in all relationships, thereby becoming emotionally and physically healthier and creating a more democratic culture.