This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 11 table of contents.

Alfred Adler's Theory

Alfred Adler was born in 1870, the second of six children in a family who lived in the suburbs of Vienna. Adler was invited to join Freud's "circle" after defending Freud at a lecture. Like Jung, he later broke with Freud over Freud's insistence that members of the Vienna Circle endorse Freud's sexual theory. It is said that Freud always looked down on Adler, while Freud regarded Jung a powerful man of ideas. Adler naturally resented this and was always quick to correct people who referred to him as a follower of Freud. He said he was merely an acquaintance, not a follower.

What led Adler to resolve to become a doctor, as a young child?

Adler believed idealistic plans for adulthood are often formed early in life, as the result of powerful positive and negative experiences. An example can be taken from Adler's own life. Adler's brother died beside him in bed when he was three. As a result, Adler resolved to "overcome this thing called death." Ultimately this led him to become a doctor.

How did the arrival of a baby brother influence Adler's theory?

Adler reported that his mother was good-humored, truthful, kind, and totally devoted to the children. However, "when my younger brother was born she transferred her attention to him, and I felt dethroned, and turned to my father, whose favorite I was." This illustrates two fundamental Adlerian concepts: those of dethronement and sibling rivalry. Dethronement occurs when a young child, initially the focus of attention, is replaced in the mother's affections by a newly arrived infant. The result is one form of sibling rivalry. Sibling rivalry, in general, Adler conceived as competition between brothers or sisters for parental approval.

How did Adler fight against inferiority?

Alfred Adler

Alfred struggled in school. He was clumsy, homely, and got poor grades. He flunked mathematics in secondary school and had to repeat it. Adler heard his teacher advise his father to take him out of school and apprentice him to a shoemaker. Instead, his father encouraged him to remain at school and redouble his efforts. Young Alfred fought against his setback by studying his math industriously.

Some time later the teacher wrote a mathematical problem on the blackboard which none of the pupils nor the teacher himself could solve. Adler suddenly stood up and said, "I can solve the problem." Disregarding the teacher's sarcastic remark, "Of course, if no one else can, you will surely be able to," he walked over to the blackboard amidst the roaring laughter of his schoolmates and solved the problem. From that time on he was the best pupil in the mathematics class.

What does "compensation" mean, in Adlerian psychology?

This illustrates another fundamental Adlerian concept: compensation in response to feelings of inferiority. Adler believed everybody has feelings of inferiority at times; this is a universal part of human experience. How you react to feelings of inferiority can shape the person you become. You can be defeated and give up hope, or you can find some way to achieve success despite early setbacks. To compensate in this context means to react against difficulty or hardship instead of giving in to it. A person who compensates for felt inferiorities is a person who makes necessary adjustments to eliminate those feelings, whether this means fighting back to succeed despite an initial failure, or finding a different area in which to excel.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.

Custom Search

Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey