Maritha on Counseling: Unrecognized Genius: The Story of Alfred Adler

Maritha Pottenger

Alfred Adler was born February 7, 1870 near Vienna. He graduated from the University of Vienna in 1895 and began practice as an ophthalmologist in 1898. He subsequently switched to general practice and then to neurology. At Freud’s invitation, in 1902, Adler joined Freud’s Wednesday evening discussion circle. The invitation may have come as a result of two defenses of Freud’s theories which Adler wrote.

During the next decade, Adler was both in and out of the Freudian circle. Freud was in full support of Adler’s Study of Organ Inferiority, but disapproved of the aggression instinct when Adler introduced it in 1908. Later, in 1923, long after Adler had discarded instinct theory, Freud incorporated the aggression instinct into psychoanalysis. Adler declared, “I enriched psychoanalysis by the aggressive drive. I gladly make them a present of it!” (p. 36 Corsini)

The increasing divergence and disagreements of Freud and Adler led to disillusion in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. In 1911, Adler resigned as its president. Freud later forced a choice between himself and Adler and several members resigned and formed the Society for Free Psychoanalytic Research, the forerunner of the Internationale Vereinigung für Individualpsychologie. In 1914, they published the first issue of Zeitschrift für Individualpsychologie (Journal of Individual Psychology).

Adler and his co-workers continued to develop the social view of the neuroses. In 1922, Adler initiated a child guidance center within the community—perhaps the first community outreach program. Adler and his colleagues promoted public family education. These centers were so successful that Vienna School authorities invited several Adlerians to plan a school along Adlerian lines. The school emphasized encouragement, class discussions, democratic principles, the responsibility of children for themselves and for each other. In 1922, Adler introduced family therapy.

Adler was invited to the United States in 1926 to lecture and demonstrate and he spent the time between 1926 and 1934, when Fascism took over in Austria, divided between the United States and abroad. He died while on a lecture tour in Aberdeen, Scotland on May 27, 1937. (Interesting note: Adler told friends the day before he died that he knew his dreams had been good because he woke up with a smile on his face.)

Although some chroniclers of psychological history talk as though Adler were just a student of Freud, most recognize his independence and many contributions which he made to psychology. Indeed, Adler probably originated more ideas which are now accepted in psychology, without acknowledgment to the source, than any other person. Alfred Adler once said he was more concerned that his theories survived than that people remember to associate his theories with his name. Apparently, his wish was granted. One commentator, Ellenberger: “It would not be easy to find another author from which so much has been borrowed from all sides without acknowledgment than Adler.” (p.44 Corsini) Karen Horney’s discussions of “neurotic ambition,” “the need for perfection” and “the category of power” all build on Adler. Several authors have pointed to the points of agreement between Adler’s theories and the neo-Freudians. Indeed, Fritz Wittels had proposed the neo-Freudians ought more properly be called “neo-Adlerians” (p. 44 Corsini). Adler’s concepts included a value psychology, and students such as Victor Frankl and Rollo May have acknowledged their debts to Adler. Frankl writes: “What he ... achieved and accomplished was no less than a Copernican switch .... Beyond this, Alfred Adler may well be regarded as an existential thinker and as a fore-runner of the existential-psychiatric movement.” (p. 38 Corsini) Albert Ellis has noted the parallels of his system to Adler’s ideas, and Abraham Maslow noted the contribution of Adler’s philosophies to the humanistic viewpoint in psychology. Several Adlerian concepts, such as the importance of birth order and inferiority feelings are part of even “pop psychology” with no real recognition of the originator.

Alfred Adler’s theories, like any other system, rest on certain basic assumptions. He viewed people always within a social context, felt one cannot isolate the individual from the environment within which s/he operates. Gestalt psychologists were among the first to recognize this, although humanistic psychology in general is placing increasing emphasis on the interplay of people and their surroundings. Adler’s psychology is an interpersonal one. He studied transactions and interactions. Adler emphasized the development of a feeling of belonging, of being a part of a larger, social reality and wishing to contribute to it. This he called Gemeinschaftsgefühl or social interest.

Adler rejected dichotomies and reductionism. He emphasized holism: even though a person may feel subjectively AS IF the conscious moves in one direction and the unconscious in another, all part-functions serve the individual as a whole—his or her goals and style of life.

Adler treated the concept of the unconscious as an adjective rather than a noun. That which is unconscious is not understood. He assumed people CREATE antagonistic feelings, ideas and values because they are unwilling to move towards solving their problems.

To understand an individual, Adler studied that person’s lifestyle—or map of cognitive organization. Each of us is assumed to develop a lifestyle early in life, to help us organize experience—understand, predict and control it. Our lifestyle is based on our perceptions, some of which are inevitably biased, so the lifestyle comes to contain some mistakes. Adler stressed understanding people phenomenologically—from each one’s individual, subjective viewpoint, rather than “objectively.” He said, “We must be able to see with his eyes and listen with his ears.” (p. 40 Corsini)

Adler emphasized the “becoming” aspects of life—that people are pulled from ahead, not just pushed from behind. People strive to reach certain goals. They act AS IF the attainment of their goals will give them security and self-esteem.

This striving of human beings was variously described as completion, superiority, self-realization, self-actualization, etc. Adler distinguished between striving solely for the individual’s greater glory, which he defined as socially useless and striving for the purpose of problem solving, overcoming, making the world a better place.

Thus, Adler defined humankind as choosing, creative, and self-determined: able to choose the goals they pursue. This freedom to choose introduced the ideas of meaning and value into psychology. In 1931, Adler authored What Life Should Mean to You. He emphasized that the “iron logic of social living” (p.41 Corsini) demands some capacity in all of us for coexisting and interrelating with our fellow (wo)man. Even with severe psychopathology, social interest is not extinct. Adler’s definition of mental health included the notion of empathy and interest in contributing to the common welfare.

The neurotic was seen as basically a discouraged person—one who either never developed—or lost—the courage to meet life’s tasks. Adler included society, work, and sex as tasks we all face and with which we learn to cope. Adler alluded to, but never specifically named the spiritual task—that people seek to define the nature of the universe, the possible existence and nature of God and how one relates to these concepts when one creates them.

The neurotic is convinced of his/her inferiority and the hostility of the world. Rather than coping directly with life, the neurotic strives for personal superiority through overcompensation, wearing a mask, withdrawal, attempting only safe tasks where the outcome is assured to be successful, and other ploys for protecting his/her self-esteem. S/he creates excuses, symptoms, evasions in order to protect his/her self-esteem. Adler was fond of saying, “Man is but a drop of water ... but a very conceited drop.” (p.192 Way) Adler also described the neurotic as having a “hesitating attitude” towards life, as a “yes-but personality” and an “If only ... personality.” (p. 41 Corsini) (All of which pre-dates Eric Berne, of course!)

Life thus demands courage—a willingness to take risks even when results are unknown or may not be liked. Because we are responsible, self-determining individuals who create and choose our own reality, we behave AS IF life were really the way we perceive it. The self-fulfilling prophecy thus becomes important. We give meaning to life, and live our lives the way we have ascribed meaning. Optimists tend to have happy lives. Because our meaning is subjective and our perceptions are limited, we may fall prey to certain myths, feeling they are truth. Adler called these “basic mistakes” (p.57 Corsini). Possible basic mistakes include:

1. Overgeneralizing. This usually involves an implicit “all” or “always.” e.g. “The world is hostile.”

2. Impossible or unrealistic goals for “security:” “I’ll be OK if everybody likes me.”

3. Misperceptions about life and its demands. In severe form, this includes delusions and hallucinations. Milder forms might be, “I’m such an unlucky person!”

4. Denying or minimizing one’s own worth. E.g. Adler talked about what Berne later called the game of “Stupid.”

5. Faulty values. E.g. “Personal aggrandizement is the most important thing in life.”

Thus, an individual’s problems are seen as arising from faulty perceptions, goals, values, and learning. The task of therapy is to reeducate. Patients are seen as discouraged. Therapy is set up as two equals cooperating in the reeducation. The patient learns to have faith in the self, to trust and to love. The individual develops social interest—a feeling of belonging and contributing in the world. Since therapy is learning, anyone and everyone can change. The inscription on the door at the entrance to the Guidance Clinic for Juvenile Delinquency in Vienna was “IT IS NEVER TOO LATE.” (p. 74 Corsini)

Let us follow the Adlerian scheme of personality development briefly through. Rather than asking the degree to which heredity vs. environment influences the individual, Adler emphasized: “How does the individual USE his(her) heredity and environment?” The emphasis is on wholism and usefulness. Children attempt to master their environments. They learn about their strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and their place in the universe. Because of their youth, many children make poor evaluations. From here, we get “basic mistakes.” Adler emphasized the importance of a child’s place within the family constellation (including birth order), but it was NOT a causal, one-to-one relationship—e.g. “Oldest is such and such,” etc. Adler said one must consider the entire context and the psychological meaning of the position for the child. Similarly, handicaps, organ inferiorities, being an orphan, etc. may become of primary importance in a child’s definition of his/her place in the world and functioning.

Adler felt children strive for a piece of “territory”—each one wants abilities and attributes which s/he feels grant feelings of worth, belonging, and having a place. The child’s process of becoming inevitably involves some biased perceptions and conclusions, what Adler called “fictions.” Children create a cognitive map to cope with the world. This inevitably diverges from reality in some areas. Part of the child’s cognitive map is her/his “life style”—long range goals, and conditions the person feels necessary for his/her security. E.g., “If only ..., then I ....” (p. 48 Corsini) Life style convictions include: 1. The self-concept. 2. The self-ideal. 3. Our picture of the world (Weltbild), and our conception of its demands on us. 4. Our ethical standards.

Adler felt that when self-concept and self-ideal were too divergent, and those convictions were “central to our sense of existence” (p.48 Corsini), inferiority feelings ensued. Similarly, a lack of congruence between our self concept and our picture of the world could result in inferiority feelings, often called feelings of inadequacy or lack of mastery or lack of competence. Discrepancies between ethical standards and one’s self concept result in inferiority feelings in the moral realm (of which guilt is one variant).

Feeling inferior is not considered abnormal. It is only when the individual begins to act AS IF s/he were truly inferior (e.g. developing symptoms) that the individual gets labeled sick or, in Adlerian terms, “discouraged.” To understand someone, Adlerians seek to know his/her lifestyle, the tasks confronting him/her, immediate goals, and her/his coping behavior.

Like Freud, Adler agreed on the importance of the early years and early experience, emphasizing not just what happened—but the child’s INTERPRETATION of events. He felt many parents unknowingly pamper their children. His definition of pampering included doing anything for a child which s/he could do for him/herself. When asked to what ideal one should bring up children, Adler said, “Make your child independent.” (p. 238 Way) He advocated being unsentimental and objective with children—neither ridiculing nor exaggerating their achievements. Adler emphasized honesty, and a consistency to a chosen line, combined with a willingness to change methods and directions when appropriate. Children learn much and develop their cognitive maps and lifestyle in reaction to “test situations”. Test situations occur with illness, later-born siblings, step-parents and various other crises. Whether the child uses such events to feel and act inferior—choosing to play the role of victim—or as a challenge to grow and develop gives clues to his/her lifestyle and basic assumptions. As many therapists have pointed out—believe actions over words. Adler was fond of saying, “Close your eyes to what a man says, and look at what he does.” (p. 316 Way)

Adler did discuss projection, excuses, and other coping mechanisms (defense mechanisms in Freudian terms). But where Freud emphasized them as defenses of the ego against the instincts of the Id, Adler saw them as problem-solving devices, which a person sometimes used to protect his/her self-esteem. The neurotic individual avoids, postpones and does everything the long way around to “save face.” If s/he expects to fail, s/he arranges in some way to salvage some self-esteem. (E.g. Since I feel I’ll fail the exam anyway, I don’t study. Then I can feel I failed because of not studying, not because of basic stupidity.)

Adler also saw dreams as problem-solving activities, as rehearsals for future possible actions, rather than going over old problems (the Freudian view). He felt dreams are used to create moods which move us towards or away from the next day’s activities. Adler rejected the idea of fixed symbolism in dreams. He was fond of the example of two boys who dreamed they wished to be a horse, one to bear responsibility for the family and the other to outstrip all others!

Some of the other differences between Freud and Adler can be summarized (p. 43 Corsini):

1 F. Felt he was objective.

1 A. Emphasized the subjective (phenomenological) viewpoint. Emphasized the relativity of truth, and the impossibility of knowing absolute Truth.

2 F. Developed a physiological basis for explaining some of his theories.

2 A. Used a SOCIAL psychology.

3 F. Emphasized causality. Came from a nineteenth century physics background which emphasized mechanical forces.

3 A. Emphasized the purposive nature of human beings—not just the interplay of mechanical forces, but with innate goals of self actualization.

4 F. Reductionistic and antagonistic. Individual made up of conflicting parts.

4 A. Wholistic. All “parts” in the service of the total person.

5 F. Focus on the INTRApsychic—within the individual.

5 A. Focus on the INTERpersonal—the individual interacting.

6 F. Mankind seen as basically “bad”—with instincts civilization attempts to control.

6 A. Mankind neither good nor bad, a choosing human being who can be good, bad or both as s/he wishes.

7 F. Establishing intrapsychic harmony the goal of psychotherapy—”where id was, shall ego be.”

7 A. Enhancing the individual and social interest the goal of psychotherapy.

8 F. People as victims of their instinctual lives.

8 A. People choose most of what happens to them, and always control their attitude towards everything that happens.

9 F. Theories of child development based on free association of adults.

9 A. Theories of child development based on children studied directly in families, schools and family education centers.

10 F. Emphasis on the Oedipal situation and its resolution. (Not supported by anthropology.)

10 A. Emphasis on the family constellation and the child’s adaptations, interpretations, reactions to it.

11 F. Other people are competitors.

11 A. Other people are our equals and we need to cooperate in life.

12 F. Women are inferior (“Anatomy is destiny”) and feel inferior because they envy men their penis.

12 A. Women feel inferior because they are culturally undervalued. They envy men their power.

13 F. Neurosis is sexually based.

13 A. Neurosis arises from a failure in learning, from misperceptions.

14 F. “Neurosis is the price we pay for our civilization.”

14 A. “Neurosis is the price we pay for our lack of civilization.”

What then, of Adler and the humanistic approach to astrology? Many of my basic assumptions correspond to Adler’s. I am in total agreement with Adler’s emphasis on the relativity of Truth. It seems a part of our ego-centricity that although we no longer put Earth in the center of the solar system, in terms of ego, we often feel the universe revolves around us. The neurotic, particularly, Adler felt, expected “the universe to apologize to him for its existence and to offer him a suitable explanation of its why and wherefore before he will consent to have anything to do with it.” (p. 192 Way) Adler was fond of saying, “Anyone who puts the question ‘What is the meaning of life and the purpose of the universe?’ is asking the question in the wrong form. The real question is: ‘What meaning do YOU give to life and what purpose do YOU attribute to the universe?’“ (p. 193 Way) I too, feel meaning is terribly important and totally subjective. Each of us must define meaning and life for ourselves, and it is a constant, evolutionary process. As Lewis Way said, “The problems they [life’s tasks] pose can never be solved once and for all, but demand from the individual a continuous and creative movement towards adaptation.” (p. 49 Corsini)

I am in full agreement with the need for constant growth and adaptation in life, with subjectivity being a fact of life. Adler’s discussion of basic assumptions (and mistakes) also meshes with my concepts of human experience. I agree all human beings do interpret, selectively attend to their experience according to their values, assumptions, etc.

With Adler, I agree on the importance of the social context. People cannot be separated from the social environment in which they interact. The whole picture is important. Similarly, I feel it behooves us to recall that human beings are whole—even when we feel conflicting sides or parts, there is an underlying message or meaning for our human organism as a totality. Similarly, the horoscope is a whole—though many break it down into various parts. Searching for themes helps us see the totality of the person and the chart.

Adler’s emphasis on people as choosing, self-determining individuals is also a part of my world view. His view of neurosis as a failure of learning also fits my perceptions. His discussion of the “masculine protest” and women’s reactions to cultural undervaluing helps to point out many of the shortcomings and outright distortions in Freudian theory. Adler falls short a bit, perhaps, in his emphasis on individuals adapting to society. He is very big on social interest—perhaps too big. He did emphasize that contributing to society did NOT mean acceptance of the status quo and conformity. He felt contributing people also help society to change and grow. However, reading his ideas, I often felt individual adaptation to society was over-emphasized and the impact of societal conditioning and proscribing behavior paid insufficient attention.

In my view, Adler could be said to have given psychology the Ninth House of the horoscope—our long-range goals, values, the pull of the future, the importance of belief systems. He also emphasized the family constellation—the Third and Fourth Houses—and indeed all the air houses with his focus on interactions with others. The urge for mastery and competence is certainly a part of all the earth houses, and the drive towards becoming must certainly include the Fifth as well. Where Freud attempted to reduce almost everything to a sexual origin, thus limiting people basically to the Fifth and Eighth Houses, Adler’s psychology was much broader. I feel it shows us more of the total person.

If astrologers were to learn one idea from Adler, I hope that it would be the concept of basic assumptions and that these are our INTERPRETATIONS of reality—not reality itself. In exactly the same way, a horoscope is a blueprint for us of a person’s INTERPRETATION of reality—not that reality itself. (Of course, there is the basic philosophical split over: Does reality per se exist, or only everyone’s interpretation and perception of reality?) A horoscope does NOT show us what an individual’s parents are like. A horoscope shows us those parts of him/herself an individual tends to select, attend to, experience in his/her relation with his/her parents. The horoscope shows OUR experience, perception of our parents—not any objective reality.

The Adlerian approach to psychotherapy (cooperative) can be useful to the astrological counselor as well. Paying attention to what is done more than what is said, giving the unexpected response rather than falling into an individual’s script (e.g. Everybody hates me.), modeling love and trust and social interest are all useful ideas.

With the Adlerians I agree: “It is never too late.” And a horoscope is a marvelous tool for seeing people’s strengths and areas of potential mastery as well as possible conflicts, “fictions” or “basic mistakes.” Adler gave us a psychology of hope, love and power. That’s the kind of astrology I’d like to see practiced world-wide.


Corsini, Raymond, editor Current Psychotherapies, Itasco, IL, F. E. Peacock Publishers, Inc., 1973.

Way, Lewis Adler’s Place in Psychology, New York, NY, Collier Books, 1962.

Copyright © 1979 Los Angeles Community Church of Religious Science, Inc.

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