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Adler's Therapy

Adler's therapy was simple and direct. There were no strict rules–it was truly tailored to the individual. Adler said the therapist had four general goals:

1. Establish contact (rapport) with the patient.

2. After a thorough diagnosis, disclose errors in the person's lifestyle.

3. Encourage progress toward a better lifestyle.

4. Encourage the patient to turn outward and get involved in helping others (showing community interest).

What techniques did Adler use in therapy?

Adler used several techniques to accomplish these goals of therapy. First, to establish rapport, he maintained a friendly and accepting attitude while allowing the client to talk freely about his or her entire life.

The Adlerian therapist observes all actions and choices made by the person, verbal and non-verbal. The therapist might notice posture, or gestures, or tone of voice, or choice of clothing. Adler felt that people tended to be consistent in all their details, so even little clues would add up to a picture of a consistent style of life.

Adler would try to diagnose a client's the style of life. This concept was discussed in Chapter 11 (Personality Theories). To Adler, the style of life was a habitual social orientation formed early in life. It was the way of interacting with other human beings that "worked" in childhood.

For example, if a child felt lonely and neglected, this was a felt inferiority. That feeling of being neglected could be combatted by seeking attention.

If the child could get attention by acting "bad," this might lead to a style of life in which one attracts attention or gains notoriety through antisocial behavior. It could become a way of life, pervading everything a person did.

Styles of life were usually not a conscious decision, being shaped by events early in life. They were not always sinister; a person might shape their personality around being good and pleasing people (because this is what gained admiration and love in early childhood).

People could change their own style of life. It was their own creation, after all, and people could compensate or develop reactions to their own inferiorities and weaknesses.

If a person can "self-train" into a good style of life, more power to them, Adler might say. But if a persistent style of life caused problems, if a person seemed unable to change, therapy might be helpful.

As the therapist discussed the client's life, certain patterns would come out. Adler would "disclose errors in the patient's lifestyle." By this he meant pointing out patterns of social interaction that might be self-defeating.

Adler felt the neurotic lifestyle was always self-centered. For example, a person with the Redeemer Complex might seem to be trying to help others, but actually the person was trying to feel power or moral superiority over others.

In general, Adler observed, a psychologically troubled person tended to be self-centered, preoccupied with his or her own problems. Consequently, such a person usually does not show much concern for others.

Adler felt it was important, as part of therapy, to encourage a person's sense of concern for other human beings. Adler used the German term gemeinschaftsgefuhl, which means community interest or social interest.

Humans need community interest, he said, to achieve happiness in work, friendship, and love. It was complications in those three areas, Adler observed, that usually sent a person into therapy.

A self-absorbed person typically has trouble forming real friendships or love relationships, or getting along with others at work. Ironically, when such a person learns to care more about others, happiness increases.

Part of Adler's therapy technique was to encourage people to re-engage with others in some sort of positive way. This, he found, often lifted people out of depressions and endless self-worries.

How did Adler encourage gemeinschaftsgefuhl?

Adler said the therapist should look for opportunities to encourage progress and boost self-confidence in a client. In particular, activities involving social interest–those that help other people or involve a worthy project–were encouraged.

Adler believed that once the therapist grasped a patients style of life, the therapist could use prediction. Successful predictions would impress upon the client the correctness of the analysis, or else serve as an implicit challenge to prove the therapist wrong.

For example, an avoidant client might discuss an important social event coming up. The therapist (knowing how the client would typically respond) might predict, "You will find some excuse not to go."

Of course, the therapist usually did not want such predictions to come true, because they were usually predictions of some neurotic or maladaptive behavior. So the prediction was like a challenge to the client.

Some people are predictable in sabotaging relationships that threaten to turn serious. An Adlerian therapist, seeing this pattern, might issue a prediction like, "If you follow your normal pattern, you will have two pleasant dates, then you will find some way to sabotage the relationship." That would challenge the client to change a long-standing pattern and prove the therapist wrong.


Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.


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