Adlerian Counselling

Most psychological therapies seem pretty unattractive to me. Freud’s is probably the worst. I cannot imagine that I would ever be willing to subject myself to it. I am deeply suspicious of drug treatments but I would a million times rather stuff myself with Prozac – or practically any other drug – than lie on Dr Freud’s couch.

My reluctance has nothing to do with Freud’s theories, or with the effectiveness of therapies based on them. It is purely practical. I just couldn’t obey what Freud referred to as his golden rule “say whatever comes into your mind”.

I know that I could never cold-bloodedly open up my private thoughts and feelings, not even to save my life. I am much too self-conscious. You might think that such reticence would make me unsuitable for any form of psychotherapy, but an entertaining and authoritative book* explains that this is not so. Alfred Adler, who was one of Freud’s inner circle of psychoanalysts until he was ejected for having the temerity to come up with theories of his own, devised an approach which he called “Individual Psychology” that I think would suit me quite well.

The first thing an Adlerian counsellor (they call themselves counsellors rather than therapists in order not to set themselves above their clients) wants to know is your recollections of your early life. Adler believed that your psychological problems are reflections of what he called your life-style, which is your individual psychological make-up, the way you deal with the world and react to different kinds of events.

Your life-style is shaped by your experiences in the first few years of life, particularly the way you see yourself in relation to your family. For this reason your recollections of early experiences are excellent clues to your life-style. If you cannot remember anything from your early life you can invent experiences. Invented experiences contain the same kinds of clue as real memories because memories are not exact – they are reconstructions. Your reconstructions have a lot in common with your inventions because you tend to embellish the aspects of the remembered event that are important to you.

Your life-style affects both the way you see the world and the way you react to it. Everything you do has the goal of making you feel better, but if your view of the way the world works – your “private logic” is faulty, you may do things that make you feel worse. One of the aims of an Adlerian counsellor is to help you understand your private logic and the hidden goals that drive your behaviour. This enables them to encourage you to develop better goals to make you act more effectively.

For Adler the way we see ourselves in relation to others is crucial. It was he who coined the term inferiority complex. He felt that the most important drive we experience is to move from a position of feeling inferior to others – which is where every child starts life – to a position of being in control and feeling superior. This belief that the drive for power is more important than the drive for sex was a flashpoint for disagreement between Adler and Freud.

We try to gratify our drive for power in different ways depending on our private logic, which in turn is influenced by our childhood experiences. A child that receives attention, encouragement and reward for good behaviour will behave well. One that does not may seek attention by bad behaviour. Even conspicuous failure can be justified by private logic: for some children it is the best way of attracting the attention – and the concern – of their parents.

The private logic we develop as children continues to govern our behaviour when we are adults. Encouraging a child to develop an effective life-style should be much easier than trying to help an adult to change a dysfunctional one. Consequently Adler placed great emphasis on education and the upbringing of children and his ideas have been very influential.

The emphasis on encouragement rather than punishment as a way of developing good behaviour appeals strongly to me. In part this is because it contrasts strongly with my early recollections of plentiful punishment at home and at school. It also raises in my mind an intriguing question. If I had been brought up by an Adlerian would I be unselfconscious enough now to seek analysis from a Freudian? I guess I shall never know.


UK Centres Adlerian Society and Institute for Individual Psychology Phone/Fax 0181 997 4163 Adlerian Workshops & Publications Phone/Fax 01296 482148

US North American School of Adlerian Psychology Phone 312 629 8801 Fax 8859 (this Chicago website has links to the main sites in other states & countries)

*Adler for Beginners, Anne Hooper & Jeremy Holford, Writers & Readers Publishing 1998

The author is professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham