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Adlerian Theories of Personality: From Birth Order to Social Interest

Alfred Adler, a renowned Austrian psychiatrist, his theories often called Adlerian theories, provide valuable insights into human behavior and motivation. In this article, we will explore the key concepts and principles of Adlerian psychology, shedding light on how it can be applied in various aspects of life.

Adlerian theories emphasize the significance of social connections and the influence of one’s environment on their development and behavior. According to Adler, individuals strive for superiority and personal growth, driven by their unique goals and perceptions. This perspective offers a holistic approach to understanding human psychology, emphasizing the importance of both nature and nurture.

Adlerian theories

Throughout this guide, we will delve into essential topics such as birth order, social interest, lifestyle, and the role of goals in shaping human behavior. By familiarizing yourself with these core principles, you will gain a deeper understanding of yourself and others, enabling you to navigate relationships, personal development, and career choices more effectively.

Whether you are a student, therapist, or simply curious about human psychology, this guide will serve as a valuable resource to help you grasp the fundamental principles of Adlerian theories. Let’s embark on this enlightening journey together.

The Life and Work of Alfred Adler

Alfred Adler was born in Vienna, Austria in 1870. When he was a kid, he got very sick and almost died. This made him want to become a doctor so he could help others. So, when he grew up, he went to school to learn how to be a doctor. He initially trained as a physician but later became a psychiatrist and a member of Sigmund Freud’s inner circle.

Becoming a Psychologist: After becoming a doctor, Adler started to get really interested in understanding how people’s minds work, especially how they feel and behave. He worked with another famous psychologist named Sigmund Freud for a little while, but then they disagreed on some ideas. Adler thought everyone’s behavior is mostly shaped by trying to belong and feel important, not just by hidden desires like Freud suggested.

Adlerian theories focused on the individual’s unique perception of the world and the influence of social factors on their behavior. According to Adler, human beings are driven by the desire for superiority and personal growth. This motivation stems from an individual’s perception of their own inferiority, which they strive to overcome through various means.

Adler’s work emphasized the importance of social connections and the impact of one’s environment on their development. He believed that an individual’s social context, including their family dynamics and interactions with others, played a significant role in shaping their personality and behavior.

Adler spent his life teaching these ideas and helping people understand themselves and others better. His work is still very important today, especially in counseling and therapy, where his ideas help therapists understand and help their patients.

The Core Principles of Adlerian Psychology

Adlerian psychology is based on several core principles that provide a framework for understanding human behavior. One of the central concepts in Adlerian theory is individual psychology, which focuses on understanding the unique perceptions and motivations of each individual.

Adlerian psychology takes a holistic approach to understanding human psychology, recognizing the interconnectedness of mind, body, and soul. It emphasizes the importance of considering the whole person rather than focusing solely on individual traits or behaviors.

Another key principle of Adlerian psychology is the concept of social interest. Social interest refers to an individual’s innate drive to connect with others and contribute to the welfare of society. According to Adler, social interest is a fundamental aspect of human nature and plays a crucial role in shaping behavior and relationships.

1. Individual Psychology and the Holistic Approach

Individual Psychology is a theory developed by Alfred Adler. In very simple terms, it suggests that every person is unique and should be seen as a whole, not just as a collection of parts or symptoms. Adler believed that we cannot fully understand a person by looking at their behavior or issues separately. Instead, we need to consider everything about them—their feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and how they relate to others—to get a complete picture. This is what he meant by a holistic approach.

Here’s a bit more detail about these ideas:

  • Individuality: Adler thought each person creates their own unique way of seeing and interacting with the world around them. This personal view is shaped by their experiences, beliefs, and goals. So, even though two people might face the same situation, they might react to it very differently based on their individual perspectives.
  • Connectedness: Even though it’s called “Individual Psychology,” Adler emphasized how connected we all are. He believed that our behavior is not just about us but also about our relationships with other people. He introduced the idea of “social interest,” meaning how our actions are often aimed at being part of a community or society and contributing positively to it.
  • Goal-Oriented Behavior: Adler suggested that our behavior is purposeful and aimed towards achieving personal goals. These goals help give our life direction and can be about achieving success, belonging, or overcoming feelings of inferiority (when we feel less than others in some way).
  • Holistic View: To really understand someone, Adler believed you need to look at their whole life—mind, body, emotions, social connections, dreams, and everything else. This approach helps us see how different aspects of a person’s life are interconnected and influence each other.

In summary, Adler’s Individual Psychology and the holistic approach tell us that to understand people properly, we need to see them as complete individuals, with their own unique views, goals, and connections to others. This helps us appreciate the complexity of human behavior and the many different factors that shape who we are and how we act.

2. Social Interest in Adlerian Theories

Social interest is a core concept in Adlerian theories and is considered essential for psychological well-being. Adler believed that individuals with a strong sense of social interest are more likely to experience happiness, fulfillment, and success in life.

In simple terms, it means caring about other people and wanting to help them, just like being part of a big family. Adler believed that feeling connected and helping others is key to living a happy and full life.

Imagine you’re part of a team. In a team, everyone works together, helps each other, and wants the whole team to do well. This is what Social Interest is about—feeling you are part of something bigger and caring about the well-being of others, not just yourself.

Adler thought that we’re all born feeling a bit weak and small because we’re very dependent on others when we’re little. As we grow, we want to feel strong and able to do things on our own. But, he said, becoming truly strong and happy isn’t just about looking after ourselves. It’s about working with and for others too.

He also said that Social Interest is something we learn. It’s like a muscle that gets stronger the more we use it. When we care for others, work well in a team, and contribute to our community, we’re using and growing our Social Interest.

Adler believed that people who have a lot of Social Interest are usually healthier, happier, and more successful. They understand that everyone faces challenges, and they want to help others overcome these challenges, just as they hope others will help them.

In short, Social Interest in Adlerian theories is about caring for others, working together for the good of everyone, and being part of a community. It’s a key part of being happy and healthy in Adler’s view.

3. Inferiority and Compensation

Alfred Adler came up with some interesting ideas about why people behave the way they do. One of his big ideas is about “inferiority and compensation,” which is a part of what he called Adlerian theories. Let’s break this down into simpler terms.


Adler believed that everyone starts life feeling weak and small compared to the people and world around them. This feeling is what he called “inferiority.” Imagine a little kid trying to play basketball with older kids. The little kid might feel too short, not strong enough, or just not good enough to play well. That’s the feeling of inferiority.

Adler thought that this feeling isn’t always bad. Instead, it can be a push or motivation for us to grow, learn, and try to be better. It’s like the little kid practicing basketball every day to eventually play as well as the older kids.


Compensation is what happens when people try to overcome or make up for their feelings of inferiority. It’s like finding a way to balance things out. There are two main ways people do this:

  1. Positive Compensation: This is when someone works hard to get better at something they feel they’re not good at. For example, if someone feels they’re not good at speaking in front of people, they might practice public speaking to become more confident. This is a healthy way of dealing with feelings of inferiority because it leads to personal growth.
  2. Overcompensation: Sometimes, people might try too hard to cover up their feelings of inferiority and end up going too far the other way. For example, someone who feels weak might try to act super tough all the time, even when it’s not necessary. This isn’t always good because it can lead to behavior that isn’t genuine or healthy.

Why It Matters

Adlerian theories, including the idea of inferiority and compensation, help us understand why we do what we do. They suggest that a lot of our actions are attempts to feel good about ourselves and find our place in the world. Understanding this can help us be kinder to ourselves and others, recognizing that everyone is on their own journey of growth and self-improvement.

4. Birth Order and Its Influence on Personality Development

Alfred Adler believed that the order in which you’re born into your family plays a role in shaping who you are. Here’s how he saw it:

  1. First-born children: These kids were the center of attention at first, but then they had to share their parents’ love and attention when the next child came along. Because of this, Adler thought first-borns might try really hard to be in charge and might be very organized and responsible. But, they might also worry a lot about being the best and might be upset about losing their spot as the only child.
  2. Middle children: According to Adler, these kids don’t get the full spotlight from the start or the special treatment often given to the youngest. This can make them really good at understanding other people and sometimes more willing to be peacemakers. They’re kind of in the middle, not the first or the last, which might make them try harder to be noticed.
  3. Youngest children: The last-born kids often get a lot of attention and might be babied more than their siblings. Adler thought this could make them very confident and relaxed, but sometimes they might depend too much on others because they’re used to being taken care of.
  4. Only children: Kids without any siblings get all the attention from their parents. This can make them very mature for their age, as they spend more time with adults than other kids. But, they might also be used to being the center of attention and not as good at sharing or competing with others.
Why It Matters

Adler believed that understanding these patterns could help us figure out why we act the way we do. It’s not that one birth order is better than another, but rather that each one comes with its own strengths and challenges. Knowing this, we can better understand ourselves and others.

Imagine your family is like a team, and whether you’re the captain, in the middle, the newest member, or the only player affects how you play the game. It’s not about being first or last but knowing your unique strengths and how to use them.

Remember, Adler’s ideas are just one way to think about personality. People are complex, and many things shape who we are. But Adler’s theories give us a useful tool to start understanding that complexity in simpler terms.

5. The Role of Family Dynamics in Adlerian Psychology

In Adlerian psychology, family dynamics are seen as very important in shaping who we are and how we behave. Alfred Adler, the creator of these ideas, thought that our family, especially our brothers and sisters, play a big role in our lives.

Here’s a simple breakdown of how Adler viewed family dynamics:

  1. Birth Order: Adler believed where you are born in your family (like being the oldest, middle, youngest, or an only child) has a big effect on your personality. For example, the oldest child might feel important but also a lot of pressure to set a good example. The youngest might get more attention and be more free-spirited. An only child might get a lot of focus from parents but feel lonely.
  2. Feeling of Belonging: Adler thought feeling like you belong in your family is key to being happy and healthy. When people feel left out or like they don’t fit in, it can lead to problems.
  3. Social Interest: This is a big idea in Adlerian psychology. Adler said being interested in helping others and being part of a community starts in the family. If a family teaches kindness and cooperation, it helps build a healthy society.
  4. Parenting Style: How parents act with their kids is crucial. Adler said that being too strict or too spoiling can cause issues. A good balance helps kids feel secure and valued.
  5. Family Atmosphere: The overall feeling or mood in the family matters. A warm and supportive home can help kids grow up feeling confident and able to deal with life’s challenges.

Adlerian psychology sees the family as the first place we learn about life. It’s where we start to develop our personality, how we see the world, and how we relate to others. Adler thought that by understanding family dynamics, we can better understand people’s problems and help them live happier lives.

Applying Adlerian Theories in Therapy and Counseling

Adlerian theories focus on understanding people as whole individuals. Adler believed that everyone wants to feel like they belong and are important. He thought that our behavior and feelings are shaped by our efforts to belong and feel significant.

Goals of Therapy

In therapy, using Adlerian theories, the main goal is to help people feel connected and important. Therapists help people understand how their beliefs and actions can either help or stop them from feeling good about themselves and their relationships with others.

Steps in Therapy

  1. Getting to Know You: The therapist spends time understanding the person’s life, what’s important to them, and their challenges.
  2. Finding Patterns: Together, they look for patterns in how the person thinks, feels, and acts. These patterns can show why the person might be struggling.
  3. Encouragement: Adlerian therapy uses a lot of encouragement. It’s about helping people see their strengths and how they can use them to deal with their problems.
  4. Setting Goals: The person and the therapist set goals. These goals are about making positive changes in the person’s life.
  5. Learning New Ways: They work on learning new ways to think, feel, and act. This can help the person make better choices and build stronger relationships.
  6. Belonging and Significance: A big focus is on helping the person feel like they belong and are important. This can mean improving relationships or finding ways to contribute to their community.

Why It Works

Adlerian therapy works because it looks at the whole person. It’s not just about fixing problems. It’s about helping people see how they can live in a way that makes them feel good and connected to others. This approach can be very powerful in helping people change their lives for the better.

In Sum, Adlerian theories in therapy are all about understanding ourselves, finding our strengths, and using them to live a life where we feel we belong and are valued. It’s a kind and encouraging way to help people grow and find happiness.

Works Cited

Adler, Alfred. The Science of Living. Abingdon, Oxon Routledge Ann Arbor, Michigan Proquest, 2013.

Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation. Literary Licensing, LLC, 7 Aug. 2014.

The General System of Individual Psychology : Overview and Summary of Classical Adlerian Theory & Current Practice. Bellingham, Wa, Classical Adlerian Translation Project, 2006.

Understanding Human Nature (Psychology Revivals). Routledge, 26 June 2013.

Capuzzi, Dave, and Mark D Stauffer. Counseling and Psychotherapy: Theories and Interventions. 7th ed., Alexandria, Va, American Counseling Association, 2022.

Karen Strohm Kitchener, and Sharon K Anderson. Foundations of Ethical Practice, Research, and Teaching in Psychology and Counseling. Routledge, 19 Jan. 2011.

Watts, Richard E, and Jon Carlson. Intervention & Strategies in Counseling and Psychotherapy. Taylor & Francis, 21 Aug. 2013.

White, W. A. (1917). The theories of Freud, Jung and Adler: III. The Adlerian concept of the neuroses. The Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 12 (3), 168.

Miller, R. & Dillman Taylor, D. (2016). Does Adlerian theory stand the test of time?: Examining individual psychology from a neuroscience perspective. The Journal of Humanistic Counseling, 55 : 11-128. doi:10.1002/john.12028

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